Interview with Chris Vanstone, Chief Innovation Officer from The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI). Interview held on Monday 17 September with Carolyn Nikoloski and Angela Jolic.
Chris Vanstone leads innovation across TACSI, working with interdisciplinary teams and communities to co-design solutions to social problems.
The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) formed in 2009 to find new and better ways to eliminate the inequality, poverty and poor life prospects many people experience, despite intensive efforts to help them.
Since then they have conducted a range of progressive social experiments aimed at increasing equality and inclusion. Over time, they have crafted a radical approach to innovation, powered by people with lived experience of the challenge that is being tackled.
TACSI works across complex policy areas and sectors including child protection, ageing, home and housing, place-based disadvantage, employment, disability services and health.
Their projects range from individual policy and service redesign through to multi-year innovation initiatives.
At the heart of TACSI lies the fundamental belief that people are the experts in their own lives. Innovation is not the end game. Instead, TACSI’s aim is people living their best life and having every opportunity to reach their potential.
In practice, this is achieved through a co-design approach –working with hard-to-reach and vulnerable groups to design policies, programs and solutions that work for them.
They have a team of 40 people that work to shape systems and disrupt disadvantage. The aim is that all Australians live the life they want to live. Current projects include looking at opportunities for using artificial intelligence for suicide prevention, how to activate community mental health first aid and interventions for older people who are socially isolated.
For one project, they have identified the loneliest people; those that have been isolated for their whole life, those who are subjectively lonely people, those that are newly isolated due to the deaths of friends/partners or some due to some sort of impairment. The intervention was a telephone based social networking service, with participants being provided with practical supports, helping them to meet up and attend social events.
Chris talked to us about how it is important to tailor solutions. In regard to people connecting, there is a Theory of Change that talks about 3 pieces of puzzle - mindset, social skill and social opportunity. Research suggests that all three pieces are important to safeguard against social isolation. Most solutions directly address the third piece – social opportunities. Going forward, TACSI believe there is a need for more focus on mindset and building effective social skills.
TACSI did some research on the theme of Social Isolation amongst Baby Boomers and a possible prototype for action into the future. They identified that the ability to regenerate social connections is an important skill as people grow older – the ability to meet new people at a transactional level, and identify and nurture the connections that could become meaningful, and perhaps even develop into deeper connections over time.
They conceptualised an online platform called On the Verandah. The objective is to support strong and vibrant social connections for maintaining health and wellbeing as people grow older. Members of the ‘on the verandah’ community would be able to build social resilience on their journey through later life via the three prioritised channels: mindset, social skills and social opportunities.
The idea is to have people sign up to submit a small amount of data every few months and receive regular ‘nudges’, tailored to them (recognising the 4 character types), to help them build better mindset, skills and opportunities for positive social connections. Nudges were practical ideas and encouragement for people to conduct their own social experiments.
Chris suggested that we need to know what we are trying to achieve. He talked about how 5up5down won’t work for someone that has a negative mindset, and in fact could intensify loneliness for some people. Some work by TACSI suggests that projects and interventions that bring lonely people together “to do activities together”, without any support or attention paid to their ability or openness to social connection, serve only to intensify loneliness. If we don’t help people to connect, we can breed more loneliness. Sometimes however, a common purpose can bring people together.
Family by Family is a program created by TACSI to address families in crisis by engaging and training families who have been through tough times to help other families going through tough times. 1,000 families so far, works for people who want to change something, families link up, building relationships phase, doing with, doing without - families can maintain connections if they want to, helps with self-determination, recruit through fairs, there are self referral partners, sometimes referral from services. Families are supported by other families, rather than by professionals. Screening is important – TACSI spend time with the family, then training to get families to understand how they went through their thing and what helped them, this lets them share it better, then weekly check ins, families self set goals and tacsi measures progress.
Family by Family creates opportunities for people to help people, and thereby creates strong social connections between people.
Chris also talked about Meals with Mates - matching people with their food likes and interests, people would host meals in their own home, they had barrier busters to tackle the barriers that prevented people from participating. For example, they provided support to people who can't drive, don’t have any ‘going out clothes’, are not feeling presentable, etc.
Chris talked about needing to understand what are enablers of deep friendships. 'Kitestring' is a social enterprise being driven by Ryan Hubbard, a report that is a synthesis of the findings from a year of research into close friendships and how we can form and maintain them in the modern world.
We asked if we were to lead a community-based initiative to improve social connectedness, where do you think we could best focus our efforts?
Chris suggested we look at what types of outreach models work, as it depends on your cohort. For example, if your cohort is people over the age of 90, you should talk to social clubs about who they're not seeing anymore, to mobile library services and look at hospital discharges.
You should also look at what is already available to address social connection.
The key is to know your target cohort, what are you going to do and what are the knock on effects, understand what you are and what you are not doing, really try to understand the lives of folks who are isolated.
Its worth looking at Meta analyses of interventions to address loneliness.