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Jessica Dawes: The dawn of a new age

Welcome to The Internet of Caring Things. A £5.6 million jointly-funded project by the North of Tyne Combined Authority with the UK’s National Innovation Centre for Ageing and deep tech innovation organisation CPI, it is aimed at making the North East the global hub for innovation at the intersection of the Internet of Things and care, engaging with businesses and creating jobs while developing new skills.

As home to the National Innovation Centre for Ageing (NICA), the National Innovation Centre for Data, and the National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise, The Catalyst building – on Newcastle’s Helix site – has been designed to bring together business, academia and the public to collaborate and support the research and development of products and services.

And now the growing NICA team wants to find the local innovators looking to improve the way we all live. 

Ahead of The Internet of Caring Things’ launch this month, Colin Young met its programme manager Jessica Dawes to find out more.

Rarely has a building’s name been so apt.

The Catalyst: sparkly on the outside, the £50 million glass structure, encrusted with golden diamond shaped frames, is really coming to life on the inside too, thanks to the bright sparks within.

Spread over four floors, with inspirational murals and slogans across its walls, The Catalyst has been designed to perfection, with dreams now becoming reality through the research and initiatives it was built for.

It is home to the National Innovation Centre for Ageing, which was created through collaboration between Newcastle University and the Government, and its aim is to help create a world in which we age better, healthier and longer. 

The Internet of Caring Things is its flagship project, and, thanks to the North of Tyne Combined Authority, NICA is opening its arms to the local businesses and entrepreneurs who want to make a difference to the way we age.

Just four months in and a wide range of innovations are already exciting the assembled teams as they undergo support projects – from the cuddly bears designed for young children to monitor heart rate, and which have had a positive response from those living with dementia, to femtech, via a pre-menopausal app that offers symptom tracking.  

“We are all ageing,” says programme manager Jessica Dawes. 

“We think about ageing through life and hope to create products and services that allow us all to age well, without excluding anyone. 

“We hope to change the narrative around who uses technology. 

“Businesses must realise how their products and services, whatever sector they are in, can support people to live healthier lives, while supporting economic and social impact.

“They need to think differently and understand that technology should be for everyone and that includes older people as well as their family, friends and carers. 

“This is a call to action. 

“We want businesses to think ‘aspiration not desperation’ when designing products and services. I want products I can use now, not just when I’m older. 

“We want to overcome age-related prejudice and stereotypes, focusing not only on what is needed, but on understanding what is desired – what people like and what they care about, as well as what their stakeholders care about.

“When we talk about the Internet of Caring Things it is essentially connected devices that care for people and that people care about as well – if you care about something, you are keener to use it, to interact with it.

“We want social, and economic development, we want to improve people’s experience and enable them to age well. 

“Developing fantastic products is a wasted opportunity if the people on our doorstep will not use them, will not be able to afford them or get access to them – that is not why we are here.”

Programme partner CPI has also moved into the building, adding its connections with industry leaders, businesses and top researchers to this new innovation cluster.

NICA has already brought together professionals and researchers, clinicians, scientists, innovators and technologists, working together with the public, whose input comes via VOICE, “an international network of innovation-ready citizens”. 

There are also plans to engage with more than 1000 residents in the North of Tyne area, which stretches from the banks of the river in Newcastle to the Scottish Borders, to test and develop the new products and services.  

 CPI says it is co-funding the Internet of Caring Things project “to improve the wellbeing of residents, support the local economy and create jobs across key sectors through strategic investment, business engagement, and technology-based solutions”.

The UK (and the world) is undergoing a demographic shift with an increasingly ageing population linked to increased risk of poor health. 

Without new approaches, costs of age-related disease and social care will escalate, and the quality of life will worsen for a significant sector of the population.

Increasing healthy life expectancy by five years, while decreasing health inequalities – which is one of the Government’s stated Grand Challenges – is ambitious but possible, says the NICA team, through major advances across predictive and preventative health, and technological, data and digital progress.

For NICA, this offers an opportunity to create a new landscape for growing old, allowing people of all ages, to live more meaningful and connected lives, with the emphasis on physical and mental wellbeing.

This could, it says, represent an opportunity for the region to place itself, and its ethos, as a mainstream vocation for its future development.

Jessica says the aim of the initiative is to involve more industries, beyond just healthcare, to offer people and their family and friends a novel range of solutions based on an understanding of their day-to-day interactions.

“The reason I joined NICA was to make a societal impact,” explains Jessica, who arrived at the organisation after completing a master’s degree in psychology while working part-time.

“I’ve always been interested in people and the remit of this programme is to create economic and social development in the region; I want to make a difference.

“They’re all different businesses, from circadian rhythms and lighting, smart lighting devices, innovative sensor producers, to a memory book for people with dementia; we’ve been inundated with requests for support through this programme.

“In the long run, businesses are able to ‘de-risk’ their innovation because we engage with the end-user and have a deep understanding of longevity economy.

“We offer webinars and seminars – from experts within the field – bespoke reports, market analysis and product testing.”

Jessica adds: “We provide businesses subsidised access to our expertise, steer and direction and do the groundwork they might not have the capacity to do, in order to move into this new Internet of Caring Things market – we can support them to gain funding through our expertise and advice. 

“We have access to ageing intelligence here at NICA – a wealth of knowledge created by our own expertise, research, networks and understanding of ageing dynamics, academics within Newcastle University and expertise from CPI. 

“The companies we’re working with now are interested in that because they would not have access to this knowledge otherwise.

“It provides real opportunities.

“And because of the connections we have in the region, nationally and globally, we can signpost people to exactly what they need.

“You might just have an idea or an early prototype but come and talk to us. 

“We are creating an Internet of Caring Things market here in the region and we are passionate about making it work.”

Of course, it is the people in The Catalyst who will make it work, and Jessica need look no further than her own family for inspiration to achieve ageing aspirations for everyone.

Her mum Jennifer recently retired as a nurse, where she specialised in palliative care in a care home and end of life treatment – and where Jessica’s early interest in people was sparked as a volunteer.

A pupil at St Leonard’s, in Durham, she studied psychology and sociology at York before returning to the North East.

Her work with NICA has, she says, opened her eyes to the UK’s ageing population and the barriers the programme will face to combat issues such as digital poverty, which has had a profound impact on residents around the Helix.

And it is also a reminder that caring, as well as charity, begins at home.

Jessica adds: “My mam recently retired, and I’ve been telling her to ‘get cracking on the fitness’. 

“I’ve been an absolute pain but she’s on board with it now.

“I told her it’s about more than just heart health, it’s about overall wellbeing – it started with moving from one foot to the other while brushing her teeth, and now she’s out running three or four times a week.

“You learn a lot when immersed in this environment, when working alongside academics with years’ of experience in the ageing space.

“But to me, it’s about changing the narrative, particularly when people say, ‘oh I’m 55, what do you expect? I can’t do everything’. 

“We can all do something about it.

“My 84-year-old grandmother uses her iPad every day and loves technology, whereas my 57-year-old mam, absolutely not. 

“She wouldn’t touch an iPad, she doesn’t even have a smartphone.

“So it is not about age, and this is the thinking we are trying to encourage.

“There are businesses who could move into this Internet of Caring Things market by thinking about the products and services which might support healthy ageing, ensuring what they design is for all and any age and stage of life.”

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