Connecting seniors at heart of student social innovation

Improving seniors’ social lives is the impetus for a new service conceived by a team of SFU students. They’ve just completed a program called Health Change Lab. Students in this experiential learning program address community health challenges in Surrey through entrepreneurship and innovation. 

The team’s proposal is for a seniors’ ride service that facilitates social connection. Called Connexion Rides, its goal is to provide efficient, accessible transportation to seniors that allows for more social connection and time spent in their communities. Students developed the idea after completing interviews with nearly 120 individuals in the Surrey area to determine their needs. 

Students say the need for increased access to social involvement is evident.

“Our research found that meaningful engagement with others topped the list of issues for many of these seniors,” says Sophia Knowles, a health sciences student in the program. 

“We initially started with an interest in preventing social isolation among seniors, and the idea for the service resulted from our various personal experiences working and spending time with seniors,” Knowles notes. “Early on, we came to see how communities miss out when seniors are not feeling as engaged or connected as they could and would like to be.

“Through the interviews and the more formal testing, it was impossible to ignore that transportation was closely tied to social isolation. We then developed a proposed transportation solution according to user insights, refining the model with information from secondary research and more interviews with experts.” 

The students now move on with their studies but hope their idea will attract attention. Other ideas developed by student teams address challenges involving youth engagement, social and emotional learning in elementary schools, disease prevention and food security. 

The Health Change Lab was developed by SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences and RADIUS, a social innovation lab and venture incubator based at SFU’s Beedie School of Business. For the past two years, students have worked together with the City of Surrey, Fraser Health, and numerous other local groups. During the semester, the student cohort spends a day in class in Surrey and one afternoon in Vancouver. They spend additional time in community, interviewing user groups, experts and others.

The program incorporates design thinking, problem identification, empathy strategies, conceiving ideas and creating/testing prototypes, and culminates with student project presentations.

“This is a unique approach because students are not only learning, they hopefully will be making a difference in this community, as they will work on priority issues identified by Surrey partners,” says Paola Ardiles, a lecturer in health sciences based at the Surrey campus. Ardiles was recently named one of TD Bank’s 10 most influential Hispanic Canadians, for her role as a champion of social innovation and health. 

Change Labs aims to create a powerful experiential undergraduate experience that engages “head, heart, and hands” and focuses on building enterprising future leaders. Some Change Lab concepts have already moved on to the incubation process, while others have been taken up and implemented by community partners.

In the case of team Connexion, interest to develop the service was clear from seniors as well as those in their circle of support, says Knowles.

“Through our research, we learned there are initiatives at work to address seniors' transportation needs in Surrey as well as globally, and the we hope to see this grow to include their social needs,” says Knowles. “We plan to stay open to new possibilities while we explore further with stakeholders.” 

The next Health Change Lab is planned for the 2018 fall semester. For more information on Change Labs, visit