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Innovation isn’t a linear journey; it requires iteration, testing, learning and unlearning. So when embarking on the design of Tech for Better Care back in 2022, we knew a different approach would be needed. Our scoping research, and learning from other trailblazing initiatives, enabled us to push the boundaries of programme design – all to better support tech-enabled innovation in social care.

So Tech for Better Care set out to support user-led, iterative working, giving programme teams space to refine their ideas as they go. But for that to succeed, my Health Foundation colleagues and our partners (Social Finance and Ipsos) needed to work in a similar way: refining and iterating the programme and acting quickly on learning.

As a funder, not only is there rich learning from the projects themselves, but there’s also learning for us in how we design programmes, how we make grants, and ultimately how we use our endowment effectively to support radical innovation and improvement.

Emerging learning from phase 1

This new way of supporting innovation has been a steep learning curve. It goes far beyond just providing funds – needing significant internal changes to mindsets and ways of working too. As programme manager, I’m keen to share some of our reflections from phase 1 of Tech for Better Care. 

Understand the problems before developing solutions

Time and space to explore issues before developing solutions is welcome, but there’s limited opportunity to do it, especially in the care sector. Based on this key insight, and learning from initiatives like Q Lab, we knew we wanted the Tech for Better Care programme to create much-needed space and provide resources to convene people and develop ideas together.

The teams participating in the programme have made the most of the opportunity, working with people who deliver and receive care to understand the status quo, challenge assumptions and explore future alternatives together. As a result, teams have pivoted on their original ideas. We hope this means that the innovations they’ve tested and piloted will be care-led and enabled by technology (rather than led by technology), and will therefore consider people’s needs holistically. 

It's ok to not have all the answers

Funding ideas at such an early stage means embracing their complexity and messiness – as long as they align to programme principles. For the Tech for Better Care programme, this means supporting ideas that are transformative and enable proactive care or care that focuses on human connections. It can feel uncomfortable to back ideas where there are so many known unknowns and unknown unknowns, but innovation requires taking risks. As a funder we need to shift our mindset to adopt the same ‘learn fast, fail fast’ approach that we’re encouraging from programme teams. 

Influencing the wider ecosystem

The Health Foundation’s endowment allows us to push the boundaries in supporting innovative work. Balancing future-focused ideas with feasibility and practicality is a tension we are grappling with, particularly given the current challenging context for health and care organisations. Supporting teams to build evidence and value propositions will help, but as funders it’s also our responsibility to think carefully about the role we can play in the wider ecosystem to give innovative ideas the best chance of being adopted, spread and scaled. 

Phase 2: supporting teams to test ideas

Since September, our Tech for Better Care programme teams have been working closely with people who provide and receive care to explore their ideas. As phase 1 comes to a close, we’re delighted to announce that we’ll support the following six teams to test their ideas in phase 2:

  • In Control and Care City: co-designing a digital platform for mutual support with the aim of using technology to offer guidance and inspiration at all stages of people’s self-directed support journey. 
  • NHS Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucester Integrated Care Board: exploring new digital technologies to provide personalised support for people who are taking multiple medications.
  • Voluntary and independent sector partners, North/South Health and Social Care Partnerships, and NHS Lanarkshire: exploring how technology can support both the human and preventative aspects of falls care.
  • Rowcroft Hospice: exploring how technology can be used to support patients, and those closest to them, at the end of their life to access palliative care and support at home. 
  • Shared Lives Plus: developing a digital matching platform and marketplace for day support and respite.
  • Sutton Primary Care Networks: developing a virtual space that can empower people who are lonely, create peer support networks and enable social interaction.

These six teams will draw on the insights from phase 1 to spend the next 5 months testing their ideas. Some will then receive further funding and support to pilot their ideas in the third and final phase.

What’s next for our learning?

This is a short snapshot of learning so far. Social Finance (our support partner) are also capturing practical insights from programme teams, and Ipsos (our evaluation supplier) are undertaking a developmental evaluation of the programme. This will guide us on our journey, identifying the activities with most impact, as well as any potential barriers to progress, so that we can address them as we go. 

Working on an iterative programme means that our learning about how best to support innovation is also emergent and evolving. We’re keen to share as we go. We’ll continue to learn from people and organisations who have trodden this path already and are leading the way (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Lankelly Chase, the Q Lab – to name but a few). 

It’s still early days for us on our journey to find better ways to support innovation in health and care, but I’m excited by the potential for impact – in innovation itself, and in shaping the way funders support innovation for the best results. 

If there’s anything here that resonates or is of interest, get in touch and let’s learn together. 

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