Digital innovation for healthy ageing: social isolation and loneliness in Northern Ireland

A number of Northern Ireland institutions and organisations joined forces in 2021 to take a multisectoral approach to address social isolation and loneliness as part of Connected Places Catapult’s Homes for Healthy Ageing programme.

By 2050, the percentage of the UK population aged 65 and over is projected to increase to 25%[1]. As such, there is a need to adopt more innovative approaches to reduce the risk of social isolation and loneliness, create meaningful opportunities for social connectedness, and promote a greater sense of belonging among our ageing population 

Social relationships are an important part of people’s health and wellbeing. They have the potential to increase people’s happiness, comfort, and resilience. This is especially important among older adults who are at significant risk of loneliness due to factors such as decreased mobility, limited social networks, and deteriorating health. 

In Northern Ireland, chronic loneliness affects 1 in 20 people[2]. Given the prominence of this issue in the region, a number of Northern Ireland institutions and organisations joined forces in 2021 to take a multisectoral approach to addressing this challenge as part of Connected Places Catapult’s Homes for Healthy Ageing programme. The programme aims to demonstrate the role that innovation, collaboration and a human-centred approach can play in accelerating the development of healthy, age-friendly homes and neighbourhoods. 

As one of the five location partners funded by Connected Places Catapult, the Northern Ireland consortium was made up of: 

  • Ulster University
  • Belfast City Council
  • Connected Health Innovation Centre (CHIC)
  • Queen’s University Belfast
  • Age NI
  • Public Health Agency NI
  • Health Innovation Research Alliance NI (HIRANI)  
  • Market Development Association (MDA)

Together, the consortium delivered a testbed in Belfast to test and demonstrate the impact of innovative technologies and solutions addressing social isolation and loneliness among older adults.  

A testbed is an environment for trailing innovative and ambitious ideas in real-life settings, enabling places and innovators to discover what does and doesn’t work in a safe environment before iterating and scaling up. Ten UK businesses were given the opportunity to participate in the Northern Ireland testbed, to trial and showcase their products and services, using Connected Places Catapult’s Real World Testing Framework. 

Understanding the challenge area 

The consortium set out to address the challenge areas of ‘physical and mental health’ and ‘community and social environment’ to improve the health, wellbeing and independence of older adults. The aim was to identify innovative ways of enhancing social connections among older adults living in urban and rural areas of Northern Ireland, using digital technology. 

The consortium engaged with older adults and local experts in the community to gather useful insights on the most prominent challenges facing socially isolated older adults. The testbed explored three issues: 

  • how to create tailored approaches that allow older adults to develop meaningful connections 
  • how to rebuild the confidence of older adults who have lost their social activities/hobbies due to COVID-19; and 
  • how to remove the barriers of getting online for older adults who would benefit from being digitally connected. 

Real-world testing: 10 digital solutions   

Ten businesses were selected, following an open call, to join the Northern Ireland testbed. They tested their solutions with older adults from the local community over a 1-3-month period. A few of the companies ran a ‘demo day’, which was attended by over 80 older adults, where they presented their solutions and received useful feedback on their products and services from the people they were designed to support. 

  • Thriving AI: a digital application that enables integrated care communication, coordination & monitoring 
  • Walk With Path: wearable technology with online coaching and community building around physical exercise 
  • Civic Dollars: a community currency app that encourages users to be more active by incentivising activity 
  • Ethel Care: a digital platform that supports remote care for vulnerable people 
  • Kraydel: a TV-based service that enables social connectivity and internet of things monitoring 
  • Treasured Times: an easy-to-use digital application keeping families connected 
  • Living in Fitness: health and quality of life through exercise classes 
  • Companiions: a platform providing a simple, trusted way for people to arrange support, assistance and company from a pool of local, trusted, and vetted companions 
  • Storii: a platform helping people to build life stories and connect with loved ones, 
  • Wanatok: an app that brings people together in person to talk in real-time in their current location.

Throughout the process, the businesses learnt and got advice from experts within the region, including the Loneliness Forum, Queen’s University, Ulster University, and Age NI. The opportunity to engage directly with older adults was a notable part of the testbed experience, as the businesses were able to gain a better understanding of the lived experiences of socially isolated adults in Northern Ireland, and challenge their assumptions on characteristics amendable to older adults in a digital product or service. These insights enabled them to improve or add additional functionalities, helping them improve their solution for specific user groups and cater to a wider range of end users. 

On 17th June 2022, the Northern Ireland consortium hosted a successful in-person showcase event. This event brought together local stakeholders (including community leaders, commissioners, academics, and health and social care experts) to learn more about the Homes for Healthy Ageing Programme and the innovative solutions brought forward by businesses. It was also a great opportunity to network with the businesses and hear valuable insights from the testbed.

Next steps for the consortium 

The Homes for Healthy Ageing programme was well-aligned with Belfast City Council’s Smart Belfast: Urban Innovation Framework which seeks to bring universities, businesses, local government, and citizens to collaborate, innovate and experiment using cutting-edge technologies and data science. 

The next step for the consortium is to work together to expand on the testbed learnings and insights to find ways to create new opportunities for businesses to test and scale their solutions in Northern Ireland.  

It’s been a great experience for us in Belfast to work with Connected Places Catapult. It’s been a fantastic collaboration and we’ve all brought together various skills and energy to the project. We hope that the relationship will continue on to further projects to benefit the city and our citizens  
Deirdre Ferguson of Belfast City Council