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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Six lessons on how the collaborative economy can fight isolation

For the better part of the last decade, the UK’s system of health and social care has strained under the dual challenges of rising service demand and cuts to the NHS. One of the most significant factors contributing to rising demand has been population ageing. In particular, the challenge of caring for a growing number of isolated seniors has recently led one of the NHS's most senior doctors to warn about its unsustainable costs.

While some older people will necessarily require a stay in hospital, research finds that befriending schemes and intergenerational contact are some of the most effective interventions for combating loneliness. In recent years, several collaborative economy platforms have sprung up to provide exactly this kind of support.

At our ShareLab event last week, where we explored how to generate social value in the collaborative economy, we brought together leading health and social care innovators to help us understand the potential of these platforms and offer insights on future development.

Here’s what we learned:

1. It’s about designing connection back into our lives.

While many governments have eagerly embraced independent living as a way to relieve pressure on public services, FutureGov’s Carrie Bishop explained that this has also led to increased isolation and loneliness. Platforms like Casserole Club, which pairs people who love to cook and have an extra plate with those in the community who need it, and GoodGym, which links isolated seniors (or ‘coaches’ as they are officially known) with runners who drop by to offer companionship or assist with housework, aim to re-establish community connections and make public services more human. 

2. The cost saving can be significant.

Harnessing the energy of the community to address issues like isolation and vulnerability can lead to considerable savings. As Anna McEwen of Shared Lives Plus noted, the home-sharing programme that matches community carers with vulnerable people in need of assistance can be up to £26,000 cheaper per year than traditional care delivered by the health system.

Similarly, a brand new start-up, SuperCarers, also promises to “disrupt the UK’s archaic, expensive and inefficient care system” by using technology to help families find local carers and manage their care directly.

Home-sharing schemes like Shared Lives can cost up to £26,000 less per year than traditional care.

3. Thinking like a tech startup – aiming to do one thing really, really well – is important.

We’ve seen the upheaval caused by Airbnb and Uber in the accommodation and transportation sectors. By comparison, dealing with disruption in the highly complex health and social care sector poses far greater challenges. To overcome the tension between innovative solutions and old systems, our expert panel suggested a relentless focus on neat, compact projects that address very specific problems. Taking on small chunks sets a path toward quick wins and builds a case for bigger change down the road, our panelists advised.

4. Designing the right incentives is not always intuitive.

Despite the good intentions behind the platforms described here, some people will simply not wish to access services that resemble charity. Ivo Gormley of GoodGym has overcome this perceptual challenge by designating elderly people as ‘coaches’ who play a key role in motivating runners. 

As for service providers, depending on the task in questions, they will not necessarily respond to financial incentives. For example, in earlier iterations of Casserole Club, the service considered offering small financial rewards, but found that chefs were less likely to participate when the relationship became transactional and developed into an obligation.

Given that, according to a recent survey we commissioned, 18% of people in Britain would be interested in offering services through platforms similar to these, while only 10% would be interested in receiving them, designing the right incentives for participation on both supply and demand sides is critical to delivering greater social impact.

Designing the right incentives for both supply and demand is critical to delivering social impact.

5. Raise awareness through a combination of engagement strategies.

Awareness of services like Shared Lives Plus, GoodGym and Casserole Club remains fairly low. Word of mouth from existing membership to recruit more providers and users is crucial to ongoing success. GoodGym in particular makes it easy for its runners to spread the word by documenting group runs and sharing photos with members the following day, which many then post to social media.

Recruiting isolated seniors is more challenging, but engagement through traditional community hubs like churches or ads in local papers has proven effective.

6. Collaborative economy principles can be applied to solve problems across the system. 

While three of our four panellists represented platforms that in some way addressed the rising issue of elder isolation, Dr. Mark Wilson demonstrated how digital collaborative platforms can also be used to deliver life-saving interventions. The app he developed, GoodSAM, allows anyone with the application to alert the nearest medically-qualified responders to an emergency before ambulance services arrive.

And there are other examples. Platforms like HelpAround assist people with diabetes through crowdsourced support based on location and member profiles, while Cohealo in the U.S. helps health systems share medical equipment across facilities to optimise resources and improve patient outcomes.


We have only begun to scratch the surface of what digital collaborative economy platforms can do to help us solve some of the biggest challenges faced by our health and social care system, including the pressing issue of elder isolation. To encourage further experimentation and innovation across the system, we invite you to submit ideas to our ShareLab Fund, which will offer between £10,000 and £40,000 to address a variety of social challenges through collaborative economy models.


Nevena Dragicevic

Nevena Dragicevic

Nevena Dragicevic

Nevena was a programme manager in the Government Innovation team, working on piloting Offices of Data Analytics in UK city regions. Previously, Nevena worked as a Senior Policy Analyst…

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