Designing for social isolation with BBC Radio Four’s ‘The Fix’

At the end of last week I headed west to the picturesque town of Tetbury, Gloucestershire, to record the first episode of the next season of BBC Radio Four’s ‘The Fix’.

Hosted by uscreates and presented by RSA CEO Matthew Taylor, the programme brings together experts from a diverse range of backgrounds to tackle some of the country’s most intractable problems. Our challenge for the day: to come up with an innovative solution to the growing problem of social isolation amongst the elderly in rural Gloucestershire.

I was in a team with an office furniture designer, a tourism manager, a creative problem solver, and a programme manager. We were aided by a host of facts and stats about the issue; advice and guidance from an expert at Age UK; and insights from a local resident who has lived experience of the issue.

I learnt some interesting things throughout the course of the day. The things that struck me most were:

  • Tetbury has a huge amount going on – there are loads of social groups and activities and a strong sense of community, but access is an issue for many elderly people

  • The problem of access is more complicated than it first seems – it’s not just due to poor transport links and mobility issues, but also a question of confidence. When someone is socially isolated and/or lonely, they often lack the confidence to get involved in social events, prompting a self-perpetuating cycle

  • Loneliness manifests itself in some surprising – and incredibly sad – ways. We heard from one elderly person: ‘I’ve stopped taking photographs because I’ve no one to show them to’.

Working through a ‘double diamond’ design process, we narrowed down our problem area, came up with a load of ideas in response to this problem, and began to filter and build.

The design challenge we decided to focus on was: How might we give isolated older people a key role in the community so that they develop new connections and greater confidence to get involved in Tetbury’s social events?

Some key design criteria began to bubble up in our discussions, including:

  • Authentic – we wanted to come up with a solution that involved the elderly in the local community in an authentic and meaningful way. We didn’t want to do anything that felt patronising or tokenistic

  • Inclusive – acknowledging that other groups are at risk heightened risk of social isolation – including young mothers on maternity leave – we wanted to design a solution that supports as many people as possible

  • Sustained – we challenged ourselves to design a solution that encourages long-lasting relationships, rather than one-off interactions

I can’t reveal what our idea was and whether it was the winning idea, but keep your ears peeled for the broadcast which will be aired next month!

Immy Robinson is Lead Researcher at Shift. She works on a range of projects including the development of Historypin’s Storybox, a community engagement program that runs hugely enjoyable story sharing events, designed to bring local people together and build stronger communities built on understanding, empathy and respect. Immy also leads our work with the NCS, innovating to improve the impact of their programme 4-week which serves over 300,000 young people.