How can we use digital technologies in a sustainable way to improve the wellbeing of sheltered housing residents?

For more than two years, over 100 residents living in Orbit independent living schemes have been participating in a research project investigating the environmental impact of the digital technologies that are used to provide health and care services to people aged over 55.

Francis Burrows, Director of Support and Service Development

The research, led by the University of Sussex with an interdisciplinary team from the University of Manchester, University College London, Imperial College London, Anglia Ruskin University and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and in partnership with Appello, sought to support the development of innovative solutions for digital wellbeing.

Here, Orbit’s Director of Support and Service Development, Francis Burrows discusses how being part of the research project will help Orbit to develop its digital support for independent living customers in a sustainable way.

“The driver behind the partnership is a joint interest in developing innovative solutions for healthy ageing and digital wellbeing, while protecting the environment and understanding the benefits that low carbon and digital solutions can bring older people living in sheltered and social housing,” explains Francis.

“The project has involved working with over 100 residents across three of our independent housing schemes of various sizes in Hastings, Rugby and Stratford upon Avon.

“As well as mapping and analysing the life cycle of Appello’s Living Hub warden call system that we’ve installed, the research involved residents participating in digital workshops, playing specially designed digital games and a digital trial testing more than £10,000 worth of digital technologies – smart tablets, Fitbit watches, Alexas, Bluetooth speakers, fall pendants and remote door openers.

“Some of the key findings from the research will significantly change the way digital technologies are being used within our schemes. For example, the project’s researchers have found that the largest environmental impact from the warden call system comes from an unexpected place: how their servers are housed and cooled down and the materials that the systems are made from, rather than the use of the technology itself.

“This is important from two perspectives. Firstly, it prompts the question: what can we do behind the scenes in terms of the sustainable procurement, installation and maintenance of these systems? Secondly, if we’re going to install these systems within our schemes, how can we ensure that the environmental impact is mitigated by ensuring residents are making full and effective use of the technology and positively benefiting from its presence?

“Roughly half of the environmental impact from the warden call system stems from electricity consumption – the energy required to operate and cool down server rooms* while the other half is linked to materials used to manufacture electronic equipment – such as gold, silver and copper, which can often be found on printed circuit boards.

“Reducing the environmental impact of digital warden call systems therefore requires clear guidelines on servers’ cooling requirements (when is cooling needed and at what temperature), clear mandate about whose responsibility it is to monitor and maintain the cooling of the server systems and to effectively design server rooms as part of retrofitting, maintaining and designing our schemes. This is a new area of consideration for developing our specification, where we had always focused on the service delivered and type of system. This additional detail will help us achieve the best solution from both a service and environmental perspective.

“We are already changing how we are procuring and specifying our services using this learning, building more around sustainability as well as usability and customer satisfaction into our processes to have the best outcome possible for the environment as well as our customers. The next stage will be updating our design guide to factor in external ventilation and the design of server rooms to reduce air conditioning requirements, increasing use of solar generation within schemes and other methods to improve performance of our schemes. Every change we make will combine to have a great effect and deliver on our commitment to be as sustainable as we can in our services and homes. We need to continue to monitor the impact and consider how else to measure the outcomes from a sustainability perspective, as well as the cost savings through improved energy performance.

“Installing, operating and maintaining these systems in a sustainable way is one part of the picture. The other, and equally important part is ensuring that digital technologies have a positive impact on the wellbeing of residents.

“The research pushed us to think it terms of the digital wellbeing of residents and staff. It showed that our residents currently have a breadth of perceptions about digital technology, ranging from people who reject it entirely and don’t trust it at all to others that act as ambassadors for its use and are happy to mentor their peers. The strong beliefs and perceptions held by residents can have a significant impact on the digital experience of others in the schemes. Key to creating a positive experience according to the research is enabling and supporting choice, control and capability of living with digital technologies, facilitated by proactive, tailored and in-person support.

“We’ve already introduced 14 Digital Champions in our schemes to help us do some of this work and the research certainly supports us expanding this provision to make it standard across all our schemes. Digital Champions receive training through Orbit’s partnership with Barclay’s Digital Wings on key topics including how to choose and set up a device, recognise and avoid scams, connect with people on social media and online shopping as well as training on how to deliver this advice in the most effective way to residents. Through the research we have found that digital champions’ work needs to be proactive and seek to engage residents with frequent refreshers of how to use the warden call system and troubleshooting; and needs to expand to cover not only scheme residents but also the groups of people - friends, family, neighbours - who support residents in their day-to-day interactions with digital technologies. We are referring to this group of people as ‘digital proxies’.

“Some of the residents involved in the research have also been recruited to the project’s advisory board to ensure that the customer voice is represented as we use the findings to help shape our future services.

“This is just the beginning of our digital journey. The research has shown many older people have really enjoyed using different devices and have the time and desire to learn to use more, but we still have many people who are hesitant to use technology, and a smaller group who are hostile to digital systems. We need to ensure that changes we make are done using a co-production approach so that people from the latter groups are still able to access services and that their needs are fully considered throughout. Our Ageing Well strategy is all about giving older people the opportunities to live independent, healthy and connected lives. We will be delivering new products and services that will help people to live safely in their homes, build and maintain friendships and be a part of their community both physically and virtually, including new assistive technology devices and additional support through community based teams. We will also be keeping a close watch on new technologies, constantly testing out new products and services to see how best we can support older people as new devices and systems come to market.

“With digital technology continuing to transform our lives from how we work and communicate to how we spend our spare time, it’s becoming increasingly important to break down the barriers that are preventing older people from accessing digital technologies. The benefits are obvious from reducing social isolation to increasing the variety and speed at which people can access support services.

“Implementing this technology is a big investment so it’s important that we do so in a sustainable way. This project has had significant impact on developing a multi-faceted understanding and learning of the digital needs of older and often vulnerable customers, and the systemic changes that need to be introduced to improve resident wellbeing and reduce the environmental impact of digital technologies.

“As more older people are getting used to using and living with digital technologies, their needs and aspirations are changing and it’s vital we keep supporting them through all these changes. We have so much potential to use technology to bring people together, create connected communities and enable people to maintain relationships and be confident in their homes. The coming years are going to be an exciting and transformational time, and by providing high quality homes with the connectivity people need, we will be providing homes for the future where older people feel safe, valued and connected.”

* Larger Orbit schemes with no air conditioning in the server room resulted in an impact of 35 kg CO2 / year per resident, while smaller schemes with air conditioning unit in the server room results in double impact of 70 kg CO2 / year per resident