‘Accessible, affordable, connected…and beautiful’

“We are not aiming to be like a tech start-up,” said Fanchea Kelly, chief executive of Blackwood, a national housing and care provider specialising in services for people with disabilities. “I’m not a techie,” she said, laughing.

“For us, the question always is: ‘Are we providing the right value and quality for our customers. We want them to be guiding us and co-designing with us, so that there is a continual connection between our customers and our staff. If we don’t get that right every day, I wouldn’t be comfortable with saying we are creating the future.”

But Blackwood is, nonetheless, very forward looking. The Edinburgh-based charity has more than 1,500 homes throughout the country, making it a leader in helping those who are disabled, elderly or with sensory impairments, to live more independently.

When it was established more than 40 years ago, Blackwood was a pioneer and an innovator. Founded in 1972 by Dr Margaret Blackwood MBE, her determination and vision helped establish the notion that people with disabilities should be supported to lead independent lives.

Two years ago, looking to renew Blackwood’s purpose and modernise its approach, Kelly and her team drew on their founder for inspiration: “We wanted to rekindle that pioneering and innovative spirit. The challenges facing housing and care providers are not insignificant. Standing still was not an option, so what do we need to be about to thrive for another 40 years?”

As people with and without disabilities live longer and fuller lives, and as the Scottish Government moves to integrate health and social care, the challenge for organisations like Blackwood is how to both best serve their customers and contribute to wider strategic outcomes, all in the face of reduced public resources.

While holding true to core principles of value and quality, the organisation believes technology can play an increasingly important role.

As it works in 29 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, it is more widely dispersed than most other care or housing providers and has embraced the challenges of taking housing and care into innovative areas at a time when funding is increasingly limited.

Blackwood has established a reputation for constantly pushing the boundaries of technology to allow property adaptations which make a huge difference to people with disabilities.

Last September, the organisation was praised for its exhibition at Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh, where it built a full scale, walk-through model of a dynamic concept house in just 24 hours. “A couple of years ago, we started developing what we now call the Blackwood House,” said Kelly. “The aim was to demonstrate a new standard in housing and care, and the concept was a house that was accessible, affordable, connected … and beautiful.”

That marriage of practicality, technology and emotional connection has now been made real – in the form of six Blackwood homes in Dundee that will be completed this spring and which presage the building of more than 100 similar across Scotland over the next few years. They combine an architectural logic for people with specific needs, with a physical fluidity that allows change in the short and long-term.

And Blackwood’s smart-care software, CleverCogs, is a state-of-the-art system of connected touch screen devices which can influence almost everything in the house from the ability to open curtains, to switching on TVs, ordering shopping or planning care and support with family and friends. “It allows independence in a safe environment – two very important outcomes,” said Kelly, “at the same time increasing connections between family and friends.”