In Australia, we started the year with devastating bushfires and are currently responding to the myriad health, social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the current context in mind, we believe that solutions that blend social impact and financial resilience are more important than ever and critical if we are to effectively build back better. So, as the first half of 2020 comes to a close, we wanted to share a good news story. This article is about Guide Dog Victoria’s new foray into a social enterprise, Beacon technology, which is focussed on building inclusive communities and a financially sustainable organisation.
Guide Dogs Victoria has a long and strong history of providing vital support to Victorians with low vision or blindness. Established in 1957, the organisation has since grown to provide services far beyond just the dogs themselves to include a wide range of community initiatives, and training and education programs.
Guide Dogs Victoria now has a new offering within their portfolio, Beacon technology. Designed by BlindSquare, Beacon technology enables people with low vision and blindness to navigate indoor and outdoor environments more effectively. As venues and public spaces re-open over the coming months, technology such as Beacon is a real opportunity to increase access and inclusion for all Victorians.
So how does Beacon technology actually work? Virtual and physical beacons are mapped to a particular location. This could be food and drinks stalls at a stadium, pop-up toilets at a major sporting event, where to purchase tickets in a train station, or a taxi rank in an urban thoroughfare. When an individual downloads the BlindSquare Event app, it verbally communicates any beacons in the nearby vicinity so that the individual can safely and effectively navigate their surrounds. With their phone acting as a compass, the BlindSquare Event app can easily pivot and extra information can be sourced by shaking the phone for more verbal cues. There is good news and bad news about the app. The good news is that it’s free to download, the bad news is that it’s only available on Apple phones for the time being.
And are there beacons in Australia? Yes, there are several beacons in Australia. Given Guide Dogs Victoria are headquartered in Melbourne, many of these are in the Victorian state capital. Places that have been made more inclusive and accessible through Beacon technology include the City Loop train stations in Melbourne, Richmond and Footscray train stations, Bourke Street and Swanston Street, Melbourne Zoo, the Grand Prix event in Albert Park and several shopping centres.
The positive social impact of Beacon technology is obvious but what role does it play when it comes to organisational financial sustainability? Beacon technology has the potential to increase and diversify revenue for Guide Dogs Victoria. First of all, as an innovative and impactful technology solution, the organisation has secured a range of philanthropic and government grants to advance Beacon technology. In addition, and the way Beacon technology is financed ongoing is through an initial installation fee, ongoing service retainer and ad hoc maintenance expenses as required.
How did this opportunity actually come about and develop? As many things do, it all started at a conference. After attending a BlindSquare team presentation a couple of years ago, Guide Dogs Victoria’s John-Ross Barresi followed up to learn more about the technology. On learning that Beacon technology wasn’t currently available in Australia, Guide Dogs Victoria partnered with BlindSquare to promote and distribute it in Australia. Since then, Guide Dogs Victoria has experienced rapid growth in beacon installation and app downloads, which the team referred to as a whirlwind and an unbelievable journey. Saying that, the Beacon program at Guide Dogs Victoria is still in its infancy and looking to mature beyond the start-up phase over the coming months and years.
And where next for Beacon technology and Guide Dogs Victoria? In the interest of greater inclusion and accessibility, and supporting communities to build back better, Guide Dogs Victoria is looking to increase the number of virtual and physical beacons across the state and potentially further afield. This is because it’s important that beacons are comprehensive and connected, rather than discrete pockets in certain locations. The team are cognisant that this will require strong partnerships across the not-for-profit, government and private sectors.
Lastly, what are the key takeaways of the Guide Dogs Victoria team when it comes to social enterprise? The first comes from John-Ross Barresi, who emphasised that successful technology offerings need user testing as early as possible to enable installation and implementation to go smoothly. In addition, Business Development and Innovation Manager Tim Adams noted that it’s critical for not-for-profits to remember that they are still businesses, who need to seriously consider and cover their costs to enable them to achieve the greatest impact.
Have you read this article and don’t want to stop here? If so, we’ve got a few ideas for you:
- To learn more about Guide Dogs Victoria and BlindSquare, check out their websites here and here.
- To access more detailed insights from Spark about approaches and business models that combine impact and sustainability, download our whitepaper here.
- Read the first part of our leadership in crisis series here.
- To chat directly with us about your ideas and challenges when it comes to building back better, and profit-for-purpose and other models that drive positive change in the world, email firstname.lastname@example.org.