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Innovation in a pandemic

May 7th 2020

Alongside the challenges, the coronavirus pandemic has brought unexpected opportunities to innovate. Dr Jamie Smith, Director of Research and Innovation at Hafod Housing Association, sets out some surprising lessons learned.

For us at Hafod, one of the main lessons to be learned from lockdown is that there are lessons to be learned from lockdown.  When the crisis bit, the primary focus, naturally and rightly, shifted to the front-line – to the essential care home, domiciliary care, housing and support services Hafod provides. Those services have flexed and stretched, shown compassion and courage and helped to protect some of the most vulnerable people in Welsh society. For this we are proud and thankful.

But alongside this effort, we have been keen to mobilise our knowledge resources and bring them to bear on the armada of new problems and opportunities that come with a pandemic.  We took a momentary step back and thought about the data and insight we would need to navigate safely; the processes we would need to tweak or dispense with; how we keep track of the decisions; and, importantly for me, how we could stay true to our values around the use of evidence, even under extraordinary pressure.

But it’s opportunities to innovate I would like to reflect on further.

Opportunity is a difficult word to use in the circumstances, but here we mean opportunity in the name of making life better for our tenants and residents. What we have learned is to push back on the automatic assumption that there’s a time and a place to innovate and a crisis isn’t it.

For example, loneliness and isolation is an issue we knew was rife in our communities long before the pandemic but a forced lock-down suddenly created the conditions to accelerate our nascent ideas and forge the partnerships with our customers and partners to allow them to happen. Work we were engaged in around financial resilience as a defence against poverty suddenly has even greater meaning and has forced us to re-examine our priorities to get this work at the forefront of our agenda.

Striking a new balance

Another clear lesson for us has been balancing the immediate and growing needs of our tenants and residents and deploying scarce knowledge resources on addressing the problems they face now, with keeping enough in reserve to think of the future.

Assuming the fallout from coronavirus will follow the pattern of past economic shocks in Wales, existing social and health inequalities will be mirrored and amplified. This is likely to increase demand for the types of services we provide, of course. But more than this it will force us, and organisations like us, to re-think our role in helping local economies to be more resilient; to empower communities to escape poverty traps; and to broker new collaborations, funding models and organisational designs that will allow us to do more and do better for them.

It is by no means a luxury to devote resources to thinking about this now, but we have also learned that it’s tough doing this alone. Some of the first things to slide off the table when the first wave of virus swept over Wales were the forums for innovation and change, when these are probably needed more than ever.

If we were to reflect on something that hasn’t worked so well it’s precisely that:  the sectors we work within do not have the collective means to mobilise evidence and engage in collective learning quickly and we’re as complicit in that as any other. If ever there was a question over the merits of growing an innovation and learning infrastructure in housing and care,  coronavirus has emphatically answered it.

Dr Jamie Smith is Director of Research and Innovation at Hafod Housing Association

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