Consumer technology is now being used to meet practical needs and bring fulfilment to people’s lives, says Peter Knight

Instead of using the treadmill in her local gym, these days Jo checks in with the GoodGym and is given her exercise instructions: run two miles to visit 84-year-old Mary, change her light bulb, check all’s well with the octogenarian, and then run back.

If Jo wore a Nike Fuel band it would show her mileage, calories burned and other body-beautiful data. But it would not display the social good she does while exercising. Maybe one day it will.

Jo is in the vanguard of a nascent movement that could divert us from the narcissism encouraged by social media to a society that uses technology to meet critical social needs, such as care for old people. That’s the hope, if only we could stop posting so many selfies.

As our societies mature, the proportion of people over 65 is expanding fast, and the birth rate is slowing. In the EU, old people account for nearly 18% of the population and will make up a third by 2060, according to Eurostat.

There simply will not be enough young people around to earn the money to pay the taxes to look after the infirm. This is going to place unbearable pressures on taxpayers. And it is happening everywhere outside the emerging markets.  

Societies will have to rely less on government and more on community resources to meet social needs. We’re going to have to find ways to motivate ourselves to be more community-minded. And it’s communications technology that is going to help us.

The fast-developing “internet of things” will fix a jet engine mid-flight or send us an alert from our fridge that the milk is running low. But if we are to avert a granny disaster, we must move swiftly from creating the internet of things to the “internet of people”.

We’re already on the move. We are using technology to create what’s called the Sharing Society. This is the Airbnb model, where a spare room in Manhattan can be hired with ease by a traveller from Beijing. The same model is being used to share everything from cars to mothers’ milk. (It’s true, check out how mothers with spare milk share with those who have none.)

But much more needs to be done, and more quickly. Ivo Gormley, the man who came up with the idea of the GoodGym that connects the needs of Jo (exercise) with those of Mary (friendly chat and light bulb fix) has shown what is possible.

Action, not ideas

Actually, Gormley gets a big gold star because he put his idea into practice. All those who tweet about social entrepreneurship, impact investing and the sharing economy need to put their ideas into action, too.

And here’s an idea of where to start. It is all about food vans.

At the back of our London office in trendy Spitalfields (beards and fixies are de rigueur) sit four or five fashionable food vans. They provide a hip version of a Disneyland lunch to the desperately fashionable in need of a falafel. But they go nowhere.

Rather than simply waiting for the lunch trade, foodie van owners could be on the road maximising their capital investment by visiting the old and infirm in the neighbourhood. Instead of the institutional meals-on-wheels, the aspiring restaurateurs could be giving the community an inspiring gastronomic experience.

How about a voice-activated granny app that connects food vans, GoodGym members and local social services? Granny Hail would be the equivalent of those cab apps that bring a taxi to your door or street corner. And why not extend Granny Hail to exploit the demand from corporations that want to expand their volunteering but are short of ideas?

Corporate sponsors would supply the app to their employees, who could choose from a menu of do-good opportunities in their communities, and their time would be automatically logged. In this way corporations would overcome the silliness of most volunteering – where highly qualified people paint walls – and make a real contribution to their communities.

Who pays besides corporate sponsors? If crowd funding platform Kickstarter can persuade thousands to fund some crackpot idea – then surely we can find the cash to get a falafel and a bright smile to Mary.

Peter Knight is chairman, Context Group.

consumer technology  innovation  marketing 

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