Sustainability Action Blog


The University of Southampton Social Innovation Challenge Series: our first challenge and why we’re doing it 

By Julia Kendal |

Guest Blog by Pathik Pathak.

A million older people haven’t spoken to someone else in over a month. 500,000 older people will be alone at Christmas.  Acute loneliness is as twice as deadly as obesity. It is as potent a cause of death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The headlines statistics are staggering. Athina Vlachatoni, Associate Professor in the Centre for Research into Ageing, tells us that social isolation has almost become a  medicalised condition; not only is often chronic, but it is also highly correlated to a range of diseases.

Let’s take the first statistic as a starting point. A million older people haven’t spoken to someone else in over a month.  That’s a population the size of Birmingham. Rowenna Davis, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Southampton Itchen has first hand experience of the desperation felt by people who are socially isolated. During the course of her door-knocking campaigns Rowenna has encountered many older people who yearn for kind of conversation. She spoke at our event of her anguish at having to end calls with older women who don’t want to put the phone down because they don’t know when they’d hear another voice else again.

Of course, this recent research confirms what we already know: growing old in the UK is a unpleasant, difficult, and acutely lonely experience. It’s also a looming fiscal crisis, because of the health outcomes listed above, demographic trends (It’s estimated one in three UK children born in 2014 will live to be 100 years old) and the state’s inability (or unwillingness, depending on your ideological bent) to afford decent and sufficient care.

This is a cause for genuine concern not only for our current generation of over 65s, but for younger generations as well. Recent research into the economic prospects of the millennials does not bode well for intergenerational solidarity. Those who are jobless, locked out of the property market and heavily indebted are unlikely to be in a position to redress the care deficit we see today.

The problem is clear; solutions are less easy to come by.  Austerity has decimated the voluntary’s sector capacity to innovate and think creatively. In Southampton charities are struggling to maintain their core activities and desperately seek new income streams to maintain staffing levels. Local government services are stretching to breaking point and playing like political footballs.

This is where it is incumbent upon universities to play a larger role. We have the expertise, connections and resources to catalyse social innovation. There is nothing we lack: we have a sizeable evidence base, work closely with the voluntary sector to understand the anatomy of communities, have the ear of local and national government, and are at the cutting edge of technology and business.

We’ve launched the social innovation programme because we believe universities, like ours, should be community anchors, drawing on our status and legitimacy to unify groups across the public, private and voluntary sector around social issues, and social missions.

Our fledgling social innovation programme aims to leverage university research, such as that conducted by Athina and colleagues, voluntary sector topic expertise and design thinking to catalyse innovation. We’ve partnered with the University of Southampton Student’s Union, Student Hubs and Southampton Voluntary Service to deliver the programme , and our first event, addressing the social isolation of older people, took place in November. All of the project designs were of a high standard, but our expert panel decided to support three: an afterschool modern history club run by older people for primary school children; a lodging service for health science students, placing them with older people; and an intergenerational language scheme. Age UK, our voluntary sector partner on this challenge, will also be providing support to the projects over the next 12 months.


The role of universities 

We know that the challenges we face in the world today, from responding to climate change to meeting the care crisis, will not be met by engineers or political scientists working in blinkered separation.

Our programme therefore draws on creative capacities across disciplines and across sectors. We also know that the walls built around the private, public and voluntary sectors are barriers to creative and effective problem-solving. Our ambition is to use our partnership to prefigure a different kind of social creativity which is responsive to emerging issues, and which can harness the respective talents of skills of people from as many diverse backgrounds as possible.

We have a considerable advantage at Southampton because we’re already primed for interdisciplinary collaboration: it is one of our distinctive strengths and the hallmark of our research excellence.  What we have to do now is to extend this spirit of collaboration beyond the university to local (and international) partners who each have something unique and distinctive to bring to the table.

Our social innovation challenge series therefore is not, and cannot be, a decorative flourish. The days when universities thought they could cocoon themselves from the social realities of their city environment (or sneeringly relegate civic participation to ex-polytechnics) are long gone. There’s no guarantee our challenge series will generate workable solutions, of course. There’s no reason to think it could be scaled upon into something more than evening’s entertainment. But it’s a start.