Developing solutions to complex problems: our experiences on Transform Ageing

The Transform Ageing programme took a community and design-led approach to improve people’s experience of ageing. It brought together people in later life, their friends, family, carers, social entrepreneurs and public sector leaders to define, develop and deliver new solutions that better support the needs and aspirations of our ageing communities in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset.

As we approach the conclusion of the programme, we reflect on our experiences and learning.

What we did

Launched in 2017, and funded by The National Lottery Community Fund, Transform Ageing is led by Design Council, alongside UnLtd, the South West Academic Health Science Network, and the Centre for Ageing Better.

Over 3 years we have been seeking to foster innovation through:

  1. Design workshops and design thinking tools for stakeholders
  2. Using learning and developmental evaluation to iterate and improve the programme as it develops.
  3. Supporting social entrepreneurs to develop new products and services or bring successful innovations into the South West.

Through this way of working we were able to:

  1. Connect local people and decision makers to build a picture of needs in their area.
  2. Spot gaps in our model and respond with new ideas for improvements.
  3. See innovations started in the South West grow to new parts of the country.

46% of the social entrepreneurs supported in the programme are aged over 50 and have created hundreds of jobs. This suggests we have succeeded in supporting a local market of non-statutory services to meet the needs of local people in later life.

What we learned

Early next year, we will be sharing our full evaluation of the programme in which we’ll explore its impact and the achievements of the social entrepreneurs. Having wrapped up delivery, we first wanted to review what we had learned about the different approaches we used to foster innovation.

Alongside successes, we encountered some challenges. The health and social care sector in the South West has evolved over the life of the programme and people’s needs changed with it. We needed to have a support offer which could adapt and respond to those changes, and programme structures which gave us space to do that.

In particular, we found that

  1. For design thinking to work best as an ongoing process, it needs the tools, structures, and processes to support it throughout the programme.
  2. Using programme learning to drive change works best when the programme structures are flexible enough to support change and innovation.
  3. Bringing existing products and services into a new place requires as much innovation work (and support) as developing something new – and adaptation is an ongoing process.

What we’d do differently next time

We suggest the following recommendations to others looking to foster innovation in complex systems:

  1. Plan and share how you want to collaborate: Consider how the programme will work together at different stages from the outset. Be prepared to review it and pay attention to how people move between different approaches.
  2. Use design thinking as an ongoing process: When working in complex situations, needs will often change. Consider whether the problem requires a one-off design event or if it is an ongoing process over the course of the programme.
  3. Build around adaptability: Plans, targets and budgets are useful tools for driving conventional programmes but they create strict parameters. In adaptive programmes, technical leadership empowers front-line staff to learn by doing and be adaptive. Financial monitoring and staff management are used to support adaptive programme delivery, rather than drive it.
  4. Managing power and interests: Pay attention to creating and maintaining strong relationships between stakeholders – understanding organisational values is as important as shared deliverables.
  5. Agree what this means for programme reporting - especially if you encounter unexpected barriers: Transform Ageing encountered barriers typical to many programmes – staff changes, delays, and shifting priorities. Communication about what is happening across the programme and having agreement at every level on what can change and what needs to stay the same facilitates timely changes.
  6. Innovation never stops and needs ongoing support. Even social entrepreneurs (or programmes) that have worked well once, will need to be able to innovate and adapt to deliver in a new area or with a new audience.

In January 2020, we will produce our final evaluation to better understand the implications of this for the people we supported. We will bring that together with learning from four programmes supporting social entrepreneurs developing solutions for an ageing society in the last 3 years, to share what we have learnt so far and what it means for our future plans.

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