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Challenge Prize gets seal of approval

Sometimes you can’t make it up. My week started with a colleague explaining to me that seals are trustworthy – “no one has ever been stitched up by a seal” she said, which when you stop to think about it is absolutely true. It turns out that a robotic seal called Paro is used in Japan for the treatment of people with dementia. Apparently the fact that people are unlikely to have had a bad experience with a seal and its generally friendly demeanour make the robotic creature an ideal companion for empowering dementia sufferers and giving them back a sense of their identity – they become the carer not the cared for.

The reason why we were having a conversation about an AI-empowered pinniped (that’s the proper name for a seal – I looked it up on Wikipedia) in the first place is that Essex County Council will shortly be launching its next Challenge Prize the focus of which will be dementia.

Challenge Prizes are a pretty innovative way to commission for outcomes. They recognise that although we can be clear about the problem, there may be people out there from a diverse range of backgrounds with interesting ideas to address our challenge which we would never have thought of or funded through a more traditional route – hence the seal. I feel sure that had it made it to the shores of Investment Board, the seal would have eventually beached, gasping for air, unable to answer even the most basic of questions regarding its return on investment.

Paro is powerful because his AI engine means that he can respond in meaningful ways to human interaction and therefore supports the creation of bonds. And bonds – the links we have to others – are the key to happiness and wellbeing. And yet public policy is poorly attuned to them, and sometimes actively destructive of them. Bonds are the closest thing that social policy has to a silver bullet.

Among the many insights in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is the startling fact that if you belong to no social groups and then join just one, you cut your risk of dying in the next year by half! So whilst we are very attuned to socio-economic inequality (my current favourite fact regarding which is that in 2015 the richest 62 people on the planet owned as much private wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion!) we are less focused on network inequality. There is a real risk of our interventions actually crowding out the relationships that people need to thrive – which is why colleagues across the council are so careful about building sustainability into everything we do and why in Essex County Council's Organisation Strategy we have laid such strong emphasis on the importance of strong communities.

To return to the seal briefly, one of the concerns that colleagues have been grappling with in the creation of the latest Challenge Prize is the relationship between technology and humans – some people who have been interviewed in relation to the dementia prize have emphasised the need to seek people - not technologically-centred solutions.

Paro shows, I think, that the intelligent application of technology when centred on actual human need, can bridge that divide. Technology can be a powerful force for bringing people together and supporting and strengthening our social bonds. Indeed, in the trials that have been run in the UK, Paro has been seen to enhance social interaction between dementia sufferers. So, let’s see what this latest Challenge Prize brings forth, it may not be a seal (closest relative the bear would you believe!), but it might well be something equally unexpected that has the potential to transform the lives of our families, friends, and neighbours.

Richard Puleston

Director Corporate Strategy, Essex County Council

20 November 2017