Honor Browne never saw herself as an ‘innovator’ or ‘entrepreneur.’ In her mind, those labels were for engineers or business owners, not someone dedicated to improving health outcomes. However, Honor’s university journey and openness to new opportunities have opened her eyes to the potential for innovative thinking for social impact. At the recent Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland Blues Awards, Honor was recognised for her role in winning the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) x United Nations (UN) Social Innovation Competition that enabled her team to attend advanced prototyping training and UN sessions in Thailand earlier this year.
Leaving school with good grades and a yearning to help others, Honor first enrolled for a Bachelor of Science- Biomedical Science at the University of Auckland with her sights set on a career in medicine. “It seemed like the obvious choice,” says Honor. But it was while studying one paper in Population Health in that first year that Honor had a lightbulb moment. “It really inspired me to change when I realised, I can prevent people from getting sick in the first place.”
During Honor’s second year at university, she pivoted toward health science combined with political and global studies, thinking they would help her make the impact she desired. Ultimately, Honor chose to tailor her degree programme further, settling on a conjoint Bachelor of Health Science/Bachelor of Arts (Economics & Statistics). “I decided If I want people to listen to me, I need the data to back it up, and I need the economics to show that it’s worth the money and support.”
Honor views everything in life as a learning opportunity. “I just put my name down for everything. Even if it doesn’t turn out to be something I enjoy. I still learn something from it.”
Honor applied and was accepted into the APRU x UN Social Innovation programme, through which teams of students from 60 universities across 19 Pacific Rim countries form virtual teams and are challenged to develop a social innovation prototype to address the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) 3: Good Health and Well-being.
It was while brainstorming ideas that Honor’s international team started discussing their own experiences of Covid lockdowns and the effects on mental health for themselves and loved ones. While living in different countries and communities, Honor described how they were surprised to learn how much of their experiences they had in common. It was this conversation that led the group to choose to address the topic of Geriatric Mental Health.
“Loneliness, social exclusion, and loss of independence are all known causes of poor mental health in the elderly population, “explains Honor. While Covid highlighted this in a dramatic way, elderly people can experience this anytime. Addressing Geriatric Mental Health also aligns with the United Nations Decade of Healthy Aging, a global initiative to transform the world to be a better place to grow older.
Five months of collaboration resulted in Honor’s team developing the concept called the Healthy Aging Project. An innovative community-based intergenerational skills and cultural exchange programme, that aims to build a bridge between elderly communities and younger generations. ”By enabling the elderly to engage with younger generations, it restores their sense of independence and usefulness. The programme includes various activities like sharing traditional knowledge, community gardening, improving literacy rates, and teaching trades and life skills,” says Honor.
An important part of the process was ‘social prototyping,’ which aimed to test the robustness of the idea across different communities and cultures. A key step in any innovative process, Honor described how it was fundamental to expose any personal bias and assumptions. “It’s all about working out feasibility, how you’re going to implement it. It’s answering all those realistic questions, whether the programme is accessible for elderly and addresses their needs.”
Savinda Ranathunga, Regional Youth Project Manager, UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) Asia and the Pacific, was the mentor for Honor’s team and supported Honor’s Blues Award nomination saying, “Honor demonstrated strong problem-solving abilities, leading the team to overcome challenges related to funding, equity and access barriers, and individual country implementation. Her creativity was evident in the innovative solutions she proposed, which added unique and effective dimensions to our project.”
Honor believes her secret to success is simply not being shy to ask or apply. “What’s the worst that can happen? They say, “No”,” she explains. “Signing up for things randomly has led me to represent New Zealand overseas twice!”