Briefing: Innovation Incubator

Derren Hayes
Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Coram initiative will pool knowledge of councils, charities and businesses to develop innovative ideas.

Coram intends to bring together the best ideas from inside and outside the sector. Picture: Hero Image/Adobe Stock
Coram intends to bring together the best ideas from inside and outside the sector. Picture: Hero Image/Adobe Stock

The Coram Innovation Incubator (CII) was launched in March with the backing of eight local authorities and technology giant Microsoft. It aims to enable children’s services leaders to collaborate with Coram and the private sector to “develop innovative solutions to the biggest shared challenges facing the children’s social care sector, through the pursuit and exploitation of new products, processes and practice”.

Who is involved?

The CII will be operated by Coram-i, the Coram Group’s insight and innovation division. Microsoft will provide insight on how existing technology can be used to generate solutions to key children’s social care challenges, while accountants EY will provide support.

The eight authorities initially participating in the project are the London Borough of Redbridge, North Yorkshire County Council, Hertfordshire County Council, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, London Borough of Bromley, Stoke City Council, London Borough of Havering, and London Borough of Newham.

There is scope for a further nine to join for the first cycle in 2021.

In addition, the London Innovation and Improvement Alliance, the sector-led improvement partnership between London Councils and the Association of London Directors of Children’s Services, will be involved.

How will it work?

Coram says the members of the CII will work with Microsoft and EY to design “radical solutions” to the sector’s “grand challenges” through a series of innovation labs, each focusing on a specific challenge informed by current priorities.

It aims to identify and test “game changing innovations” by bringing together the best ideas from within and outside the sector, as well as the expertise and capacity to develop, pilot and implement solutions.

Coram says the CII will also champion innovation and build “know-how” at all levels by way of regular learning sets and webinars for its partners. It will also produce quarterly innovation reports identifying and recognising best practice to share with the sector, and undertake an annual national survey to measure progress in innovation sector-wide.

Why is innovation so important now?

The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the need to innovate, according to the Innovation in Children’s Servicesinsight report, published for the launch of the CII. It cites examples of children’s services innovating in response to challenges posed by the pandemic and how Covid-19 has created new problems such as organisational uncertainty and rising levels of social problems that will require new thinking to tackle.

“The pandemic has cemented the case for embracing innovation as we work around the complexities facing health and social care,” the report states.

It also includes findings from its first innovation survey. This shows that 61 per cent of respondents – councils, charities and independent fostering agencies – do not invest in meaningful levels of innovation. Regulation and a fear of failure were cited as the main barrier to innovation among three-quarters of councils.

How does this differ from other innovation programmes?

The Department for Education provided £200m of funding for two rounds of its Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme (CSCIP) in 2014 and 2016.

Kevin Yong, Coram-i director, says the CSCIP focused on incremental change and whether existing ideas could be “scaled and replicated”.

“While it did produce some positive results, there is no indication that there will be more funding in the future,” Yong says.

“Innovation is an ongoing process and we are trying to establish the conditions that enable that.”

Is all innovation technology based?

“Technology certainly has not been exploited to the fullest extent in terms of how it can help,” says Yong. This is a theme pursued in the insight report, which highlights how harnessing technology could help improve engagement with children and young people.

“Given that technology is the domain of young people, so should innovation become the hallmark of our endeavours for adolescents,” it states.

What do participants hope to gain?

Hertfordshire Council director of children’s services, Jenny Coles says rather than innovation being all “big bang change” it can also come about through “growing ideas, testing them and moving forward step-by-step”.

She adds: “Hertfordshire children’s services has a history of encouraging innovation and transformation. By joining the incubator we will be able to broaden the opportunities for innovation and improvement across a range of areas.”

A RADICAL FUNDING SOLUTION

The Innovation in Children’s Services insight report found that 2.5 times as many local authorities and charities invest in radical innovation as do independent fostering agencies. It suggests this could be because there is more demand for their services than supply.

The recent Local Government Association report into profit making by independent children’s services providers cites profits of £265m for the 20 largest providers combined.

The insight report suggests that ringfencing five per cent of that profit to be reinvested for the purposes of supporting radical innovation, would provide a £13m “ventures fund” to unblock the barriers to innovation.

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