Welfare technology research: What should we really be doing?

What type of welfare technology research do we really need? What research questions do we need to answer? And are researchers the right people to ask? This is what we want to find out in a large-scale collaboration with the Norwegian municipalities.

Verlferdsteknologi i kommuner
The use of innovation games in one of the workshops we had with representatives from the participating municipalities.

In the autumn of 2013 the Norwegian Health Directorate funded a number of research projects where Norwegian municipalities, together with different research institutes, will do research related to welfare technologies [1]. The goal of these projects is not only to answer some specific research questions, but also to train municipalities in doing more high-quality research. SINTEF is involved in one of the largest of these projects where thirteen municipalities participate.

Our involvement in this project has been an interesting and valuable experience for us, also in some unexpected ways. In our role as a research partner in a very practice-oriented project, we are not only challenged to question the relevance of much of the research we do, but also to revisit a number of our very basic assumptions about what research and innovation mean.

In the first phase of the project, which is happening now, we have been busy discussing some innovation-related questions such as: What are the everyday challenges that municipalities meet when they introduce welfare technologies? Are there shared patterns across municipalities? What visions do we have for the next ten years? Is there room for a national strategy? Participants in the project are highly experienced practitioners. This means they have the answers to many of these questions. SINTEF’s role has therefore been that of a facilitator. Through workshops and innovation games we have arrived at a number of future visions that will be detailed into scenarios.

But we do not want just new visions and scenarios. What we also want is to find out what works and what doesn’t. Does GPS-based tracking of elderly work as intended? And what is the effect of it? Do we save money? Do we give seniors a better life? Do we make decision-makers happy? How do we go ahead and answer such questions? And when do we know we have answered them? These are the research questions. And they are challenging.

Some of the challenges that we will address and report on are the following:

  • There is very little empirical evidence that shows the effect of welfare technologies. One of our tasks at SINTEF– not only in this project but in general as a research institute- is to map existing evidence in the research literature so that we can easily answer the question “Does it work?” for different technologies and services. We will– in addition to literature studies- produce empirical evidence in a number of studies done as part of this project.
  • There is a lack of guidelines on how to use research methods in different settings. Welfare technology research is multidisciplinary and involves technology development and evaluation, social sciences, clinical and economical evaluations. What exact methods to use is a discussion that will be going on in all such projects. We will report on our experience in applying some of these methods.
  • There are structural challenges also. The new role assigned to municipalities to take care of peoples’ health is one that will stretch limits. Municipalities don’t -yet- have the research capacity that one finds in, for instance, modern research hospitals. Health-related research in communities has been mainly related to public health issues and not individuals’ health. Are we able to bring our municipalities up to a level of research competence to deal with the new types of lifestyle diseases? And are municipalities willing to take the challenge?

What do you think are the most important research and innovation questions for welfare technologies? Discuss it in the comments field below.

[1] Link to the programme’s announcement press release.

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