Northcott’s ideas factory

By Alex Varley, 8 November 2017 , Comments

Northcott Innovation (NI) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Northcott. It is the design, innovation and creative hub for new thinking and insights. In this interview with Executive Director, Sam Frain, we explore the thinking and approach behind NI.

Why did Northcott set up Northcott Innovation?

Northcott saw an opportunity to do something different from other providers and be the active leaders of innovation within the disability space. To drive the change and not just be passive bystanders waiting for innovation to happen around us. It was a bit of a risky move for Northcott, but I think it’s paid off.

What is NI’s approach?

Our approach is called Human Centred Design Thinking. This is really just a fancy way of describing what we all do every day when we interact with our customers – person centred practice! It’s pretty simple: we listen first, use empathy to understand, and finally, collaborate to reach the goal.

What is your background and how does that help NI?

I’m an Occupational Therapist (OT) by training. It turns out OTs make ideal innovators, although I didn’t know that when I started this journey. We essentially have a four-year degree in creative problem solving. That’s all innovation is really – looking at an issue or challenge and trying to nut out the different ways it can be addressed.

“Incubators, start ups, disruptors” are all trendy words and concepts for innovation hubs but often they don’t deliver practical, real-world outcomes. How does NI achieve this?

NI strives to be less about buying into all the hype and catch phrases of current innovation (think people in skinny jeans, drinking soy lattes, in a revamped warehouse) and more about actual doing (think people in regular cut jeans, out in the community, chatting to people with disability, listening to their points of view). It is this grounded approach, and our ongoing connection to people with disability themselves, that enables us to achieve amazing things in quite short periods of time. We also collaborate with a whole range of groups, individuals, businesses and organisations in order to meet our goals. A bit like that saying: “stronger together”.

Where does the funding come from for NI?

As a separate, not-for-profit we can apply for government grants and grants from trusts and foundations. Sometimes we get donations from philanthropists, and sometimes we do fee-for-service work. We have our fingers in all of the pies! However, because NI doesn’t actually provide day–to-day services to people with disability, we are unable to access funding through a customer’s NDIS plan.

Sometimes projects are not successful, is that a good thing for NI?

Absolutely! The mantra in Silicon Valley is “fail fast and fail early” and that’s pretty true for NI projects. Some of them work really well, and others are abysmal. If you see me in person, ask me about the emoji project – what a disaster! The good thing is that’s okay. Without wrong turns or sometimes U-turn, we wouldn’t learn or improve. The big difference for NI is we pick ourselves up, dust off, learn something and go again.

What is the most innovative project you have worked on?

It’s hard to say. I truly love my job so have a bit of a soft spot for all of our projects.

The Nest home matching platform is a total game changer and the current “golden child” of NI. This project is going to completely change the face of accommodation for people with disability, and I’m proud to say it is 100% NI made. It’s an online platform that will match people with disability looking for supported accommodation to service providers looking for customers to fill their supported accommodation vacancies. The standout feature of the platform is where the power sits – squarely with customers, where it belongs. Nest is due to launch later this year so watch this space.

Then there’s the 3D Orthotics project, NI’s “over-achieving child”. This project involves seven organisations working together to transform how Ankle Foot Orthoses (AFOs) are made for people with disability, moving from individually hand crafted devices to a 3D-printed devices. Whilst this project will revolutionise how orthotics are made for kids in Australia, the biggest bang will be when we release the concept to developing countries, through a free, open IP platform. Amazing!

We’re also super excited because this project is a finalist in the National Disability Awards, alongside Northcott’s Feel The Vibe expos.

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Northcott customers use 3D printing to create their own solutions to everyday problems in the Hack-a-Home project.


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