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Adapting to become virtual

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

Over the past few months, we’ve seen people and organisations turning to technology as a means to carry on working and living through lockdown. Here, Nesta Challenges looks at two organisations its supported, who have successfully adapted their programmes fostering ‘physical’ interactions between people and made them virtual instead.

Nesta Challenges exists to design and run challenges that help solve pressing problems that lack solutions. In March, we announced the winner of our Tech to Connect Challenge, a competition which set out to find civil society organisations who had ideas which could help tackle social isolation, using technology.

Funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the challenge was devised to support organisations who were working to address the problem of social isolation, so that the technology they developed best reflected the needs of those experiencing isolation or loneliness. Ten finalists were selected and supported to develop their prototypes.

The ten finalists were chosen based on how their prototypes and innovations would enable more or better interactions between people.

When entries for Tech to Connect were initially submitted in 2019, none of us could have predicted the impact that Covid-19 would have on our lives and how tech would play an even bigger role in helping us stay connected.

Ideas included augmented reality to help those with autism to build confidence in visiting new places, an app providing support to survivors of sexual assault to remove the silence and stigma around the issue and a digital music box for people with dementia to faciliate and spark conversations with loved ones.

For the two runners-up of the challenge, Chatty Café and Mirthy, the tech element of their projects was a mechanism for enabling face to face interactions. Now, thanks to adaptations made possible by technology, their projects are continuing to foster contact, just in a virtual space.


After noticing communal spaces in retirement developments going unused and unloved, Mirthy set out to connect inspiring speakers who were passionate about a range of topics with retirement development lounges, with the main purpose being to mix residents with people in the community to inspire greater interaction.

Now, their model for inspiring physical connection has been taken online. Local speakers are beamed to older people at home, with discussions taking place afterwards via webinar technology.

Mirthy goes online

Alex Ramamurthy, Co-Founder and CEO of the organisation said: “The Mirthy team are a resilient and innovative bunch and we’ll continue to iterate our model and respond to what’s going on in the world in a way that best serves our beneficiaries and our mission. We believe this new model will positively impact older people across the country.”

Chatty Café

The Chatty Café is responsible for setting up a chain of over 900 ‘Chatter & Natter tables’ across the UK in cafes such as Costa, creating a designated space for people to socialise with others in the community.

With a desire to keep up these social interactions, which act as a vital lifeline for many people in the community, Chatty Café have taken to offering virtual coffees over the popular video conferencing platform Zoom.

Jenny Bimpson, whose sister founded Chatty Café, explains: “We want people to be able to have live conversations – to chat for 15 or 30 minutes and feel connected to the outside world. People can log on, sit down with a brew and have a chat. It’s very important to us that we can reach out to those feeling isolated.”

Followers of the scheme can sign up to join a Zoom meeting where others will be having a coffee. It’s a simple adaptation but one that is working well in replacement of heading out to a coffee shop to seek human interaction.

By utilising the unique elements that technology provides, these two physical forms of social interactions are now managing to work virtually. As we continue to move through the next few months, we’ll undoubtedly continue to see further adaptations to products, experiences and ways of living to ensure that we can continue to have important connections and experiences, albeit from at home.

For more information, take a look at the Tech to Connect challenge.


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Nesta Challenges exists to design and run challenge prizes that help solve pressing problems that lack solutions.


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