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The Dorset Council approach to innovation


Mark Say Managing Editor

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As far as Dorset Council is concerned, innovation is about more than its own services. There is a broader agenda about the economy, prospects for young people and the general perception of the county.

This has underlined its efforts in the area since it was created by a merger of the former county council and five districts in 2019. According to chief executive Matt Prosser it’s about a broad application and promoting a mindset.

“Part of having a future vision is allowing people to see the art of the possible, and you don’t know what that is if you are looking backwards,” he says. “You have to look forwards.”

There has been a focus to this in the council’s series of Festival of the Future events, which began in virtual form in 2020 during the Covid-19 lockdown and has been repeated twice as physical events in the following years, although this year it is on a hiatus.

Its aims have been not just to encourage innovation in public services, but to support other sectors, portray the county as attractive for technology businesses, and show young people they can build interesting, well paid careers without leaving.

Plenty of partners

“We were a very new council, only a year old, and had set up that we wanted to be a digital council,” Prosser says. “So how do we create that kind of innovation? We’re not an island, we have lots of partners, businesses, community groups. In the midst of Covid you could see technology was the thing that was going to allow us to continue to operate.”

The festivals have consisted of presentations, panel discussions and broader conversations with local businesses and technology companies, and focused on technology in areas including tourism, agriculture, autonomous vehicles, maritime and council services.

Lisa Trickey, the council’s head of digital strategy and design, says they have not necessarily produced specific innovations, but have raised awareness of ongoing developments and encouraged people to think about how they can contribute and find new applications.

“The first part of digital is about trying to create awareness with people, and what we find through the festival is that when bringing people together they start to talk and connect, and things spin off that,” she says.

Prosser relates it to a range of initiatives, one of which has been making robotic therapy pets available to local care homes. They resemble small dogs, make noises and small movements which prompt residents to interact with them and are said to help people with dementia.

Another has been the deployment of AV1 robots in schools, which provide a telepresence – virtual ears and eyes – for pupils who cannot attend because of illness or various challenges. They are proving to be a valuable tool in ensuring that the children still receive an education.

Drive for 5G

A larger scale initiative has been the 5G Rural Dorset project, which has explored how the technology can be used in agriculture, to support rural communities, improve connectivity along the coastline, in coast cliff monitoring and to encourage innovation at the Dorset Innovation Park. Among the achievements has been the deployment of what is claimed to be the world’s first 5G connected sea buoys at Lulworth Cove, and the provision of a site for testing use cases such as monitoring vulnerable people in their homes and deploying 5G as an alternative to fixed broadband.

Other projects have included the development of an app to help landlords work out the energy efficiency ratings of their properties and provide information on any relevant support; and the development of a predictive analytics tool built on the Microsoft Power BI platform to show the local impact of the cost of living crisis.

“The cost of living tool enabled us to map changes in government policy ahead of time,” Prosser says. “We were able to show to our MPs last autumn where we would have people with no money.  It was helpful for us to be able to show the scale of the challenge.”

Some existing tools have been adapted to the council’s priorities. A presentation from Microsoft at the 2021 Festival of the Future on the Bridgit app for family carer support services was picked up then equipped with links to local services. It provides unpaid carers with self-support tools and an online assessment for when they feel they need more support.

Trickey says that up to the end of July only seven assessments had gone through to the council while over 1,000 self-support plans had been created on the application, indicating its success in helping people to help themselves.

Financial assessments

The council has also highlighted its use of the Better Care Finance self-serve platform from Looking Local for financial assessments for social care. Trickey says it has helped people navigate a complex benefits system and that all those having done so have said they would do it again.

Prosser says of the project: “It’s a complex procedure trying to go through what is available and what are the issues. We are trying to make the process easier and simpler because often it is not the consumer doing the application but a family member during the working day. If they can make it easier to find it enables them to find support while managing a busy workload.”

One a broader scale, the council is facing up to a major issue for rural areas in investigating how it could provide a Gigabit capable dark fibre broadband network for the county.

Penny Syddall, its programme manager for digital skills and adoption, says most people have reasonable broadband speeds from Openreach and smaller providers, and that it was one of the first to have a contract under the Government’s Project Gigabit programme. But there have been difficulties in providing full fibre beyond the main towns, which is prompting the council to look at the case for its own full fibre network from which the unused capacity can be leased out.

“We have seen where cities are putting in their own fibre network and being able to let it to people who provide home broadband, or to support things like traffic signals and broadband to schools and care homes,” Sydall says.

“We’re exploring how that might work in a rural area. We don’t yet know the outcome but think it is worthwhile spending the time and energy to write the plan to give us the answer.”

Scope for rethink

This year’s break for the festival is providing scope for a rethink of how Dorset will approach its innovation drive over the next few years. But Prosser says that however this turns out it still has a strong rationale for the overall effort.

“We have a convenor, advocate role,” he says. “We’re advocating for our businesses, for our voluntary sector that is using some of this technology, and we’re advocating for the services we deliver. To date the festivals have been really well received and raised some awareness.

“We’ve used them for different purposes. I’ve used them to tell people who might apply for a job here that we’re a digital council, we do things differently; in the same way I would say to businesses thinking of investing that this is a council that gets it and we want to attract the right people to come here and be part of the workforce.”

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