Based in Salford, community benefit society Unlimited Potential specialises in social and economic innovation, tackling difficult social and economic issues in Greater Manchester by working with local people and communities to solve those problems. Its project – Spreading Our Net – aims to tackle loneliness in communities.
Chris Dabbs, Chief Executive, talks about its innovative, low-cost and sustainable approach to addressing loneliness in the community, focused on nurturing positive human connection.
Why did you apply for the GMCA Foundational Economy Innovation Fund?
One of the big attractions was that it is a local opportunity to innovate in a field which doesn't have many opportunities for innovation. We saw this as the chance to build on the new ideas we'd had, take them into the development phase, and eventually make a hugely positive difference to a large number of lives in Greater Manchester.
There is usually a gap, or even a chasm, between the early stages of very initial testing, and then getting into that space where you can really take the idea forward – and it can be hard to make that leap. This funding is helping us to bridge that gap.
Tell us about your project
We have repeatedly heard from health and social care professionals that their most difficult problem is the loneliness experienced by many of the people they work with. Spreading Our Net is a new approach to both reducing the levels of loneliness within communities – and all the associated impacts on mental and physical health – as well as lowering the demand on frontline health and social care workers.
Ultimately, for people who are experiencing chronic loneliness, there are two key factors: one is having a purpose and the other is having good friends. The project identifies those people who are experiencing the greatest loneliness, looks at where the strengths and assets are within the community, and creates an environment with more, and stronger, natural connections.
It improves access to fun, friendships and meaningful activities for people who are lonely, encouraging and supporting them to take part in social and community activities, meet new people, form social networks and access support. And it does all this in a natural way, largely outside of mainstream public services or the voluntary sector, without the creation of new services or groups that need resourcing.
What successes have you had to date?
The grant has been essential in helping us explore how our non-traditional solution could fit alongside a mainstream public service system. What we have learned is that there's a far bigger demand for a low-cost solution to loneliness than we’d originally thought, extending beyond health and social care. We have engaged with professionals involved in suicide reduction, for example, as well as the police, who spend considerable time with people who are experiencing mental health issues.
As a result, we have now got a much better idea of how wide the Spreading Our Net approach could be applied, and how to market it in a way that the system understands, which had been a fundamental problem for us.
What does the future hold for the project?
We have had a lot of positive stories coming out of the testing so far. Like a Polish woman, a young mother, who was experiencing loneliness and got connected with people from outside as well as inside the Polish community. And an ex-military member, identified by a local shop, who was experiencing quite severe loneliness – there was no way in the world he was going to his GP and saying “I’m depressed”, but we were able to connect him into activities that he was interested in, where he could develop new friendships.
That is ultimately what this is all about. I’m excited about its potential to become infectious as an approach that spreads all across Greater Manchester. My ideal is that, once it’s up and running, we get to a point where, first of all, local people will tell us to ‘get lost’ because we are not needed any more and, second, that the cost of maintaining it is either minimal or reduces to zero. And I don't know any local authority or NHS organisation or, indeed, the police service, that wouldn't want a solution that costs them virtually nothing over time.