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Social services are not Silicon Valley or a place where willing capitalists are ready to invest millions for the next Google. It’s a sector under immense pressure due to budgetary constraints and an ageing population. Innovation and technology may still be mystifying and expensive to many, but new social services initiatives rooted in the empowerment of service users, with improved technology at their heart, are transforming the way social services are provided across Europe.

That was the premise of our recent 25th European Social Services Conference entitled ‘Transforming lives through innovation and technology’ held in cooperation with the Maltese Presidency of the European Union. Inspiring speakers described innovative initiatives aimed at empowering people, such as cards storing personal data, participatory budgets, budget calculators, and commissioning and co-production panels with service users. We also heard about smart technology solutions to address the problems facing social services, such as data-sharing applications, vans in remote areas equipped with technology to diagnose illnesses, and toolkits to support the implementation of welfare technology in municipalities.

Examples of social innovation

We learned about Buurtzorg from Jos de Blok, which is changing the way community care is provided in the Netherlands by focusing on the role of community nurses and mobilising neighbours to support older people with chronic conditions at home and saving office costs. In France, Wheeliz is a transport service for people with disabilities created by Charlotte de Vilmorin, who decided to set up the service because of her own difficulties as a disabled person when travelling. We were also challenged to look beyond Europe at how social innovation is transforming communities in Asia and Africa. Jaideep Prabhu, from the University of Cambridge, described the way mobile vans in India are revolutionising the diagnosis of diabetes or apps in Kenya that allow people in rural areas to communicate with their family, doctors and friends in urban areas.

Geoff Mulgan, from Nesta in the UK, told us about the use of identity cards to store the health data of millions of people in Europe and other countries like India. The next step is to link health data with data from employment and social services. Ms Dolors Bassa, from the Catalan government, and Mr Manuel Domene, from the Andalusian government, spoke of single case management systems that are being developed in these Spanish regions to bring together data from health, employment and social services. There is hunger for data but also for evidence. Discussions highlighted the need for evidence to evaluate whether innovative initiatives lead to societal improvements. This is the case with a minimum income experiment that is now being rolled out in Finland and was presented by Ms Sari Rautio from the Finnish Innovation Fund.

The challenges of social innovation

But we also heard that much stands in the way of technological innovation. There are fears over privacy and data protection, and service commissioners may be reluctant to trust technology when their experiences have been disappointing, as they have limited budgets for investment. Ana Lima, from the Spanish Council of Social Work, said that there is demand for training in technology from social services professionals, but also a massive divide between those prepared for technology and those who are not. This digital divide is also happening between users. The way forward seems to be the ‘co-production’ of new products, using a partnership process with service users, decision-makers and practitioners. In this way, products can be built from the ground up before they are used more widely. We heard of examples of service co-production from Austria, Denmark and Sweden, where services are developed and tested directly with users.

The role of the European Social Network

The conference showed a considerable appetite to engage with these innovative approaches. However, the transition is a challenging one. Technology will not work for everyone, but in a time of funding issues and rising demand for services, it is important that technology plays a part in the future of social services. Thinking of our own role at the European Social Network, which is to create an evidence base of what works to support policy and practice improvement, we will need to be more active around the role of innovation and technology for social inclusion. We should think of ways to support the shift towards co-production, and how to measure and define the success of such an approach. Finally, we should think of ways to support social services to address digital literacy, or the use of technology for care plans, needs assessments, safeguarding, and the mobile workforce.


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