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Meet Pepper, the social care robot

Southend-on-Sea Borough Council has become the country’s first local authority to fully exploit the benefits of robotics in social care by introducing an unconventional new staff member to its team, reveals Sharon Houlden, its director of adult services and housing.

The words ‘local government’ and ‘exciting’ are not often put together by people outside of the sector, but I can confidently say they are apt for Southend-on-Sea, where we have become the first local authority to purchase a humanoid robot called Pepper to become a member of our social care team.

Introducing robotics to Southend-on-Sea and into local government in general is a pioneering moment, and I don’t think it gets much more exciting than that.

I’m fortunate to have a talented and innovative team who’ve been eager to support me in driving forward this work to the point where we have Pepper functioning, programmed, introduced to staff and ready to ‘start his work.’

We first revealed our ‘new recruit’ to excited staff at a practitioner event held for social work and allied professionals as part of a visit to Southend-on-Sea by Lyn Romeo, chief social worker for adults at the Department for Health, in October. Pepper also appeared at the National Children and Adult Services Conference in Bournemouth where he made a presentation to social work professionals and was very well received.

So what will he be doing exactly? Whilst he doesn’t have the functionality to carry out any direct or personal one-to-one care, he will be used in a range of settings, including in residential care homes, our sheltered housing schemes and as an information and advice point in relevant buildings.

Pepper will be a champion for the advances that digital and robotic technology and programming can make in a social care setting, and he will visit local schools to inspire children to consider a career in the social care, robotic and programming sector.

We also want to use him in some of our intergenerational projects – for example in one group, where older people teach younger people how to knit, he could display knitting techniques and video tutorials.

He can also play videos, and we plan to develop a reminiscence session that Pepper could run. We expect that whilst he will not replace any services we commission, he will free up time for our social workers and carers to spend more time giving direct care and the personal touch.

We have had such a great response to people meeting Pepper so far, and this has confirmed to me what a great addition he will be to our equipment services.

Now that Pepper has been introduced to social care staff, we will be carefully developing his programme of activity and look forward to taking him out into the community so that he can get on with the serious side of what we want him to do, and so we can start evaluating his impact on our work.

We are aware that we are stepping into the unknown. No one has done this before in a local authority, so this is also about exploration, pushing the boundaries and learning about what Pepper could achieve and how robotics could help us tackle some of the challenges the social care sector faces.

We are convinced that digital technology and robotics is where the future lies for social care, and we would be delighted to explore this further with other innovative councils and technology/robotic partners.

E: [email protected]
Tw: @PepperSouthend


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