Last week, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration published a new report, written in conjunction with The Challenge. It includes ideas to bring people together and reduce loneliness, such as using public transport as a place to spark conversation and connections, encouraging the development of intergenerational care homes, and volunteering.
The report also recommends that the GovTech Fund “should support technology companies to connect generations in both rural and urban communities.” Since November 2018, we have been working on just that with Monmouthshire County Council in Wales.
The county council has encouraged businesses to come up with ideas to alleviate loneliness and social isolation, with a focus on transport and digital skills. During our visits we’ve seen how these ideas have taken form: community hubs which include libraries, social clubs, and other vital council services; transport services for people doing their weekly shop or attending medical support groups; and a livestock markets that operate as lively social spots for a diverse mix of locals.
These are already making a real difference to people’s lives: we spoke to people who had been recently bereaved, who had found themselves very isolated when they were on parental leave, and who found it difficult to get around because of their health.
But not all ideas work in practice. One stop in particular struck me, when we popped into a national cafe chain who had announced that they would offer tables for lonely customers to chat to each other. When we got to the cafe, we couldn’t find this table anywhere. When we asked the staff what had happened, they told us that the signs had gone up a few months ago, but that cafe patrons had been reluctant to sit at the table and so they had been removed.
What does this tell us? First, the details of implementation are extremely important, in particular, people probably need more help when they enter new social scenarios. Do we need to give people additional conversation prompts to help them get started? Should we highlight the benefits of conversation to other people instead of the individual, encouraging participants to view themselves as helping others? Does pointing out that most other people would like a chat help us feel safer when striking up a conversation?
Secondly, evaluation is paramount. Shared tables for conversations are a promising idea, and our cafe visit doesn’t provide proof that these things don’t work. Instead, we need to know if, when, and how they do work. We were encouraged by the recommendation for increased evaluation in the APPG report, and we can build on guidance and measures provided by the What Works Centre for Wellbeing and New Philanthropy Capital for the Building Connections fund to do this relatively simply.
After concluding our exploratory work in Monmouthshire, we abandoned one of our own ideas for a digital buddying service, similar to one of our previous, successful projects. We felt that an app wouldn’t address the needs of the people we spoke to, in particular because many people we spoke to either didn’t have, or did not feel confident using their phones.
Instead, we focused on the last mile problem: we saw lots of great services and community events across the county, but the people we spoke to didn’t seem to know about them, or felt nervous attending for the first time. We plan to build a platform that allows us to test interventions that can help encourage residents to get involved in their community, and to test what kind of small nudges at events can facilitate conversations.
I’m a relative newcomer to London. Since I’ve been working on loneliness at BIT, I’ve tried to use myself as a guinea pig and engage more with the people I come across during my day: I take out my earphones a bit more often, I look around to have a chat with someone when I’m waiting in line, and I volunteer with South London Cares, who provide flexible volunteering opportunities for young and old residents to interact in their local area, whenever I can.
There are some situations where it feels more awkward to make eye contact and start a conversation. Small environmental changes could make it easier for me and others to make these connections more commonplace and routine – as we’ve seen in Wales, even a short conversation can make a huge difference to someone’s day.