The Tech to Connect Challenge: Impact and Insight

19 Mar 2020

A guest blog post by Kate Shurety, Tech to Connect Judge and Executive Director, Campaign to End Loneliness

When the Tech to Connect Judging Panel first gathered in September 2019, we were looking for technological approaches that showed a real understanding of the impacts and causes of social isolation, and how that might exacerbate loneliness. Technology can often be presented as ‘part of the problem’, keeping us away from face-to-face contact and deeper human connection. While technology always brings about social change – it isn’t always negative. All human technology throughout history has the potential to be used for positive impact and we collectively need to manage the risk of unintended (or even intended) negative consequences. 

Throughout the Tech to Connect Challenge process we were looking for technology that could help foster new opportunities to connect, deepen existing connections, or alleviate people’s sense of being alone and/or lonely in difficult circumstances. The 10 Finalists have been on a journey over the past 6 months, progressing their ideas and adapting them to the needs of their users. Sometimes this has involved quite radical change to their original proposals – as it should. The very best design takes into account how people will use it – anticipating our needs before we have even articulated them ourselves. 

Technology can often be presented as ‘part of the problem’, keeping us away from face-to-face contact and deeper human connection

Being part of the Judging Panel has been an incredibly rewarding process. At a personal level, I have learned a lot about technology and digital development. But it’s also reaffirmed something for me, which we hold particularly close at the Campaign to end Loneliness: that the need for human connection is incredibly deep. We are, in our very DNA, a social species. And when our contact with each other is interrupted we often fail to thrive. All the Finalists have seen this clearly – often for quite different groups with a variety of challenges – and it’s been great to witness their work and examine it so closely.

Social isolation is a key factor in causing, or complicating, loneliness. I joined the Judging Panel of Tech to Connect to make sure the emotional impact of loneliness was kept at the forefront of thinking. It can be caused by many things; externally, by access to transport, good infrastructure, physical fitness and financial resources; internally, by a range of emotions such as shame or grief. And most recently, by the current need for social distancing in the face of Covid-19. This is a new experience for many of us. But sadly, this has long been a common experience for all too many in their daily lives. We need to look at how we can ensure as many people as possible, especially those who are most at risk to isolation and loneliness, have access to simple intuitive technology to stay in touch and keep connected. 

The Tech to Connect Challenge was launched to help civil society in England develop their early stage ideas for projects that combat social isolation by utilising technology to foster more or better interactions between people. The Challenge was funded by DCMS and delivered by Nesta Challenges with support from the Developer Society. 10 finalists have each received a £25,000 grant to use in the development of their prototypes.

An expert Judging Panel was assigned, bringing together insight from civil society and the tech sector, in order to independently assess entries. The Panel included:

  • Carrie Deacon, Director Government Innovation People Power, Nesta
  • Cansu Deniz Bayrak, Senior Partner, Bethnal Green Ventures
  • Ed Evans, CEO, Social Tech Trust
  • Kate Shurety, Executive Director, Campaign to End Loneliness
  • Sebastien Krier, Policy Adviser, UK Government’s Office for Artificial Intelligence