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Last month, I spoke at a session on technology in social services at Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress, where I learnt about Ari, a robot developed by social services in Barcelona that supports older people in their own homes to address unwanted loneliness.

Technological development is unstoppable, also in social services, which have been lagging behind other sectors like healthcare. The use of technology in social services is not about replacing professionals, but about supporting their work. In areas like the promotion of personal autonomy, there are plenty of opportunities, particularly considering the Europe’s growing demographic challenges.

There are other examples of robots, for instance, Felipe, designed by a group of engineers at the University of Malaga. He was initially intended to assess the level of dependency of people who apply for long-term care support. But the engineers realised that he could not assess people’s needs as he needed a significant amount of supervision and did not save professionals’ time. Therefore, the engineers reprogrammed him to take note of residents’ menu options in care homes. Felipe is part of a wider European research programme which  is testing robots to create a smart ecosystem, which also includes sensors, falls and temperature detectors, so that people’s homes become a smart environment.

Four or five years ago, there was already significant interest in IT and social services in the Nordic countries or the UK, where there had been important developments in older people’s care. However, digitalisation has now accelerated across Europe because of the pandemic, when there was no other choice but to turn to technology. The development of digital initiatives, such as virtual assistants and applied artificial intelligence have progressed significantly over the past couple of years. However,  there are still several challenges ahead, particularly in relation to bridging the digital gap, and the low number of digitalisation initiatives led by public authorities.

Technology and digital tools in social services have been an unfulfilled promise for a long time. As a way of comparison, innovation plans have been much more common in health than in social services. However,  public authorities and third sector organisations in social services are catching up either through public procurement for innovation or the launch of foundations aimed at supporting new digitalisation initiatives.

In the area of long-term care, technology is developing in at least four ways. First, a focus on supporting people to be more autonomous, for instance with the help of smart walkers. Second, the development of (collaborative) robots or relationship devices to help fight unwanted loneliness. Third, the use of virtual assistants to switch from monitoring to interacting with people. Finally, artificial intelligence is used in predictive analytics to anticipate what might happen.

There are multiple examples of technologies used across Europe. These may include robots that help carers move people with reduced mobility. Others consist of sensors to detect human movements or the lack of them, which in many Swedish municipalities have been implemented since 2017, as well as smart keys in homes so that if something happens, the lock can be opened remotely. Or devices installed on TVs in people’s homes to run individual or group sessions with older people in their own homes. There are several pilot projects running in Spain, where success is not measured based on sophisticated indicators. Instead they look at small steps, for instance, whether ladies go to the hairdresser before the session takes place since they wish to look good on TV.

The challenge now is managing this transformation to ensure that digitalisation empowers those that work for and use social services through the production of tools that fit their needs, while also making sure that those at risk from social exclusion are not left further behind. This and some of the other transformations in social services is a key theme of the 30th Social Services Conference taking place between 8-10 June in Hamburg – find out here how you can be part of this important discussion on the future of public social services.