At a recent conference I attended one of the speakers made a statement almost as if it was a fact that ‘the social care sector has a Luddite attitude to technology and digital innovation.’ When I’ve mentioned that sentence to a few others they have confessed some agreement with his sentiment. I want to suggest in this blog that it is a wrong representation on two grounds. The first is that it’s historically inaccurate and more importantly, the second reason is that it couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Luddites were a radical group of English textile workers and weavers who just over 200 years ago in the Nottingham area destroyed weaving machinery as a form of protest. The Luddites were not against the machines themselves but against how they were being used to undermine what today we would describe as ethical working practices and health and safety. Unfortunately, the term has become adopted  to mean someone opposed to automation or new technologies per se. What has been lost is the sense of protest against the misuse not the existence of technology and automation.

Before turning towards the second assumption that the care sector is antithetical to technology I want to reflect a little upon the critical contribution of technology.

Paul R Daugherty and H James Wilson have recently published a book called ‘Human + Machine: reimagining work in the age of AI.’ It is a very good read and explores the potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the work environment against the framework of a generally suspicious cultural narrative. They explore the way in which popular culture not least in examples like the ‘Terminator’ movies or ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ suggest a polarised man versus machine view of things often depicting a future when human beings are replaced by machines. The knee-jerk reaction and negativity is echoed when we explore the debate around social care and technology.

Daugherty and Wilson forcibly argue that key to understanding the contribution of AI in any context, including the care sector, is to understand its transformational power. If we only think of AI in social care as something which will automate certain functions and tasks, then we will miss its power. Rather they argue that we need to recognise the potential of AI to complement and augment human capabilities. They envisage organic teams that partner humans with advanced AI systems. Can we imagine a mixed care team of robots and humans? Is that the stuff of dreams or nightmares? For some it is already a reality as evidenced in some Advinia care homes in England

The authors suggest that we are about to enter a ‘third wave’ of societal and workplace transformation. The first wave, they argue, was when people like Henry Ford introduced ‘standardised’ procedures. The second consisted of the automation of processes. The third, they suggest is the ‘missing middle’ where humans and machines interact. In this space human and machines are not fighting each other for dominance but seeking to complement the role of the other. But this requires new skills and employee roles, a new understanding of team and management, and maybe even a new understanding of work. Personally, I think there is real potential here for social care to take the lead in creating workplaces where AI contributes to a reformed and developed role of the social carer. It is not a case of one or the other but both contributing. As I have often said, technology can enable human presence but it should never replace it.

Dougherty and Wilson argue the leading organisations are already riding the ‘third wave’ by adopting a MELDS Framework – comprising mindset, experimentation, leadership, data and skills. What might a MELDS Framework look like for social care in Scotland? We need to find out and engage in that discovery sooner rather than later.

Already there are an amazing group of highly innovative and entrepreneurial social care companies and technology developers trying to enable a new approach to care. The next few years will be critical for shaping that future as one with the person at the centre rather than the process. It is becoming time critical that we work together to shape person-led and person-centred models of technology in care. I am confident that we can achieve models of AI which are truly grounded in a human rights based approach to technology enabled care.

As part of that journey, Scottish Care is delighted to announce that we are hosting our first ever event dedicated to technology and social care. ‘Tech Care, Take Care.’ will be held on the 24th August at the University of Strathclyde Centre for Technology and Innovation. It’s an event which will bring together some of the best designers, technologists and innovators from across Scotland and further afield. But it is also an event where we will spend some time looking at how we develop an ethical, rights-based approach to technology and care in Scotland. We hope to publish on the day a study on the relationship between human rights and technology in social care. We will explore the contribution and also the limitations of AI amongst other areas of innovation. We will consider the personalisation of care from a technological perspective in this ‘missing middle.’

So the only sense in which the term ‘social care Luddites’ fits is in the desire to develop an ethical personalised approach to technological innovation rather than a desire for social care to break up the machine! It’s going to be an intriguing ‘third wave’ to ride, why don’t you join us?

Dr Donald Macaskill

@DrDMacaskill