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GovTech Catalyst Fund awards contracts to five SMEs to tackle rural isolation and loneliness

Five small tech companies have been awarded contracts through the GovTech Catalyst Fund to come up with innovative solutions to rural isolation and loneliness

The Cabinet Office has announced the first winners of contracts as part of its GovTech Catalyst Fund, with five companies being awarded funding to develop technology to tackle rural isolation and loneliness in Monmouthshire.

The £20m GovTech Catalyst Fund, launched in November 2017, provides support for small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to define, develop and test solutions to public sector problems through innovation and emerging technologies. The GovTech Catalyst Steering Group accepts challenges from UK government bodies, including local authorities, to which companies then pitch solutions for a chance to win the contract.

The fund is part of the government’s wider SmarterGov campaign, launched to drive innovation, create savings and improve public services.

“I am delighted that our funding for innovative tech companies is helping to tackle loneliness and rural isolation, to improve people’s lives and enable them to feel a part of their local community,” said Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden, who announced the project at the Digital Leaders Innovation Conference in London last week.

“The GovTech fund encourages firms to find innovative ways to address the big social problems we all face, including loneliness, plastic pollution and national security. Through emerging technologies, this fund will help to elevate British companies onto a global market while transforming the delivery of public services for people across the UK,” he said.

“It’s not just at a national level we should be working on these challenges, it’s at a local level as well, and this is a national government facilitating local governments in delivering those sorts of innovations.”

Monmouthshire is a semi-rural county in south-east Wales with a population of 93,000, where journey times on public transport to local services can exceed two hours, according to Sara Jones, cabinet member for social justice and community development at Monmouthshire County Council.

“The GovTech fund encourages firms to find innovative ways to address the big social problems we all face, including loneliness, plastic pollution and national security”
Oliver Dowden, Cabinet Office

“We are delighted to be working with innovative businesses which have developed a range of digital solutions for transport and rural isolation. Given the importance of the small business sector to the fabric of our country, it was great to see that 65% of the applications were from Welsh and UK-wide micro-businesses with less than 10 employees,” she said.

Developing ideas

The five firms to win the contracts are Box Clever Digital, Enable International, GPC Systems, The Behavioural Insights Team and Zipabout.

These SMEs will create technology platforms to manage supply and demand of transport in rural areas, as well as minimise the risk of digital exclusion among the older population in more isolated areas.

In the first phase of the programme, each company will be funded up to £50,000 over 12 weeks to prove the feasibility of their ideas. Two companies will then be selected and given a further £500,000 over 12 months to develop their ideas further.

The successful companies will retain all intellectual property (IP) and equity for what they develop.

“I want to make sure the innovation that is standard practice in the private sector becomes standard practice in the public sector. Our government really needs to think about how it can do things differently,” said Dowden.

“Just think about how your consumption of music, for example, is being revolutionised by Spotify, or the way Airbnb has revolutionised the hotel market – those changes are not yet being seen in government.”

As part of the government’s wider commitment to using technology to improve lives and transform the delivery of public services, it will publish an innovation strategy and spending review early next spring to set out the overall approach of government spending over the coming years.

“I’m really confident that if we can get this right we can do three things: we can enhance the citizen experience of government, we can do more for them, but we can also do it for less. So we can save money along the way and we can help support the wider tech sector,” said Dowden.

Read more about the government’s technology focus

  • Despite today’s abundance of data, most of it remains locked in silos, meaning new governance structures are needed to open it up and unlock its potential value to society.
  • The minister for implementation, Oliver Dowden, provides further details on the GovTech competition and talks about GDS’s role as an “innovation incubator”, losing data policy to DCMS and the importance of SMEs.
  • The government has started to engage with the IT sector over how best to introduce emerging technologies in public service delivery – an initiative that, if successful, should be welcomed.

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