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Reflections on the European Social Services Conference

James Edmondson

Last week, I spent three days at the European Social Services Conference in Malmo, Sweden, with over 670 other delegates from 40 countries. The theme of the conference was how technology could be used to promote autonomy and inclusion.

My objective was to understand the latest thinking from around Europe and identify opportunities to enhance IMPOWER’s value propositions by better utilising technology, especially Artificial Intelligence (AI).

It was a fascinating event, touching on many subjects that reflected the broad range of people there, which included technology companies, other consultancies, and government agencies from both eastern and western Europe.

I came away with a sense of both excitement about what was happening to benefit residents and the workforces that support them, and confidence that IMPOWER is continuing to set the agenda with its thought leadership.

As I reflect on everything I learned during the week, I thought I’d set out six of my takeaways:

  1. There is a huge amount going on around Europe to support citizens using AI, technology and robotics. The overarching theme was that AI and social care are an improbable alliance and fundamental to how social care is delivered in the future. Not embracing AI is not an option. One of the most innovative and joined-up examples was from the government of Andalucía, which is working with the local water company to understand whether older people might be in trouble. They are using AI to understand water usage trends of residents and flagging where consumption is not as expected, i.e. the person might have had a fall. Most impressively, the solution does not need any additional hardware, just a smart meter and consent from the resident. These simple, easy to scale ideas are going to become pervasive.
  2. However, there’s a sense that AI is only just scratching the surface, and technology still has its sceptics, especially about how it ensures inclusivity. I saw multiple examples about how AI was being embedded in day-to-day technology, but many speakers recognised the early stages of development. One of the most thought-provoking talks was from Professor Anamika Barman-Adhikari from the University of Denver who spoke about the importance of ensuring institutional bias from current systems does not unexpectedly make its way into future solutions via machine learning and entrench unjust outcomes for the most vulnerable in society. Many presenters warned about making assumptions about the extent to which society is digitally enabled, not just older people – a good reminder for us not to leave the most vulnerable behind in all the excitement.
  3. There are similar challenges all over Europe of rising demand, recruitment, and staff retention. The state of the local government sector in the UK is not unique. Many companies are looking at how staff can use their time more productively in the current environment of stretched workforces. AI is going to be game changing, for example how it will be able to draw insight from data (such as identifying themes in case notes) or help summarise discussion points and actions from meetings.
  4. Security and surveillance are big issues across Europe. Adhering to GDPR law and asking for consent was a constant question in every presentation. There’s a risk that the rate of technological progress slows, or doesn’t happen at all, if local information governance officers interpret the law incorrectly. All the technology solutions presented had tackled their own questions about information sensitivity, so solutions are possible, but there was significant frustration about the lack of clarity of GDPR law, with many attendees saying the current situation is unsustainable.
  5. The challenge is a standards problem, not a technology problem. Countries which are enabling the use of data across agencies are ahead of the game. The most impressive projects demonstrated where existing data had been combined from across the private and public sector, making use of historical work to ensure agreed standards. One project from the Netherlands combined financial data from banks, gas and electricity consumption data from utility companies, and energy performance data to identify residents most at risk of fuel poverty.
  6. IMPOWER is developing the right solutions for the future. There were a lot of conversations, and interest in our work, around Valuing SEND (our digital platform to help local authorities and schools ensure a child’s needs are aligned with school readiness), behavioural science-informed strengths-based discussions, tools to enable co-production, and mechanisms to support decision making, such as IMPOWER’s Listening Tool. I came away confident that IMPOWER is focusing on the correct challenges and our EDGEWORK approach, looking at how clients work effectively with system partners, will enhance the cross-cutting solutions we deliver. What we are doing could be used to address similar problem spaces across Europe.

If you want to hear more about what we learned from the conference or would like to be part of our planned shared learning event, please get in touch.

Written by

James Edmondson

Delivery Director, IMPOWER



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