Design for Ageing

October 3, 2008 — 7 Comments

One of the workshops I was involved in at Summer Davos was on ageing. I was quite shocked by some of the data that the World Economic Forum had printed in a report that was released at the session. While I was well aware that the western nations, along with Japan, are experiencing a rapid ageing of the workforce, I had not appreciated the actual figures. The number of working age people supporting those over retirement age is going to drop from 4:1 to 2:1 over the next forty years. This halving of our ability to support the cost of social services and health care is dramatic and is clearly going to have significant ramifications on both the quality and quantity of support we can expect. The other big surprise for me is that the same thing is going to happen in China. It took France 115 years to double its number of 65 year-olds. It will take China just the next 27 years.

The point of the workshop was to get industry executives to start thinking about the issues now and to begin to imagine what kinds of innovations might be required if we are to manage this change. One example that came up is the commitment that some Japanese technology companies made several years ago to invest in robotics in the belief that Japanese society would not have enough people to provide for the elderly. I remember many commentators scoffing at these efforts when the first products like Sony Aibo appeared. Now a few years later when the issue is becoming more mainstream and the technology rapidly advancing Sony and the other manufacturers don’t look quite so silly. Paul Saffo claims that the 21st Century will be the century of robotics and Japan is certainly betting on that to help with its ageing problem.

Interestingly, although several of the ideas that came up in the workshop were for products, the most popular idea was for a service that helped lonely people stay connected. What resonated about this idea was that it served a need that people have long before they get old and so it seemed like it may be possible to persuade people to join up before they are expensive to support. This led on to ideas about insurance and financial services. Service innovation, as well as technology, is going to be key to dealing with the ageing problem. It seems to me that there are still very few companies looking at this issue and very few examples of interesting innovations making it to the market. Hopefully the workshop got at least a few CEO’s thinking differently.

Tim Brown


7 responses to Design for Ageing

  1. Andrew Fallshaw October 5, 2008 at 12:40 am

    It’s a potent insight. We’ve all laughed at the cultural divide between young and old, but the next couple of decades might become scary rather than funny with this divide.
    Already, an older generation that isn’t internet savvy must struggle to relate to our modern world, and the people that talk of twits, blogs and crowd sourcing. If you missed the initial lesson, you don’t understand all the extension lessons (eg: how can you understand Twitter, if you don’t already understand Texting and Facebook?).
    If we extrapolate technology’s exponential progress out a couple of decades, we might see a cultural chasm, where currently there is only a gap. And perhaps one of the biggest contributors to the loneliness will simply be technology illiteracy?
    As decision makers in this space, I guess we need to ensure enough ‘on-ramps’ that will help get laggards up to speed?
    I guess we also seek to lessen the expectation of prior knowledge wherever possible?
    And I guess we take the time to engage the retiring generations, in a way that keeps them in the loop (for both our benefit)?
    That’s a big chunk of the population we’d start to miss…

  2. A short bit of background on this photograph that is making the rounds these days: when Ela and I were in Shanghai in 2007, we decided to spend Chinese New Year in Guangxi province in a minority village. Just to the west of prosperous Guangdong province (Hong Kong and Shenzhen are both SEZ’s in this area), Guangxi was another world. This photograph was taken at the drum tower of Chenyang village. The village elders, dressed in their deep purple dyed garb, took turns performing their traditional songs and dances for each other. The women would go and then the men would go. Note that this is a village that, for the other 51 weeks of the year, is void of members between the age of 18 – 35. All the young men and women go to work in nearby industrial cities and what we are left with are the elders and the children. I wonder how they will pass on their cultural traditions as a minority group with their young absent most of the year.

    Tim, I think you are right – helping keep the elderly stay connected with their families through products, services and spaces is a priority and a huge opportunity. I was astonished at the elderly communities that existed not only in the village towns in China, but also in the cities. Without fail, every day I would find septegenarians awake at the crack of dawn, silently and peacefully progressing through a series of tai chi moves in the park. Then, late at night, we would find rousing streetside games of mahjong and chinese chess, and dinner parties would be arranged around these mind stimulating activities. I wonder if there is some other model less rigid and depressing than a senior home that we can design for the western world that would emulate the informal natural communities that are so full of life in China.

    Unfortunately, China will likely grow old before it grows rich, but this in itself is an opportunity.

    Hope you are well!

  3. Emily Ma points out some interesting starters. Mental stimulation counts for a lot, chess and mahjong, both require a degree of focus and strategy.

    This is the depressing reality of elderly care homes. There is no point having a home for the elderly when there is no consideration for what they do when they are there. Cut to images of elderly people with TV dinners sat in front of a large television, waiting for the next food event.

    Simple notions, perhaps some involvement in their own care, deciding the meals they have for the rest of the week, or even help in preparing their own meals would return some value to their daily routine. If not, of course activities such as chess and mahjong may help provide some relief from boredom.

  4. I’d go a step further: our treatment of the elderly consists of separating them from us–separate centers, separate activities, etc. Until we learn to recognize that the elderly are part of us, we will not find a solution.

  5. I appreciate your comment, Paolo. There are fundamental challenges that we as a culture must address with regards to respecting the elderly. We attempt to deny the aging process in ourselves while denying the individualized care and attention that everyone needs and deserves. I believe that true empathy is the key and solutions based around this focus are heading in the right direction. Insights will come when we take our pride out of the equation and begin to focus on what we can do for a generation in need on a personally meaningful level.

  6. Hi Tim
    Michael Evamy here; how are you?! I’m doing some work with the RSA at the moment, documenting this year’s Design For Age student design award process and finalists. The challenge is to design a service to address the isolation and loneliness of the growing elderly population. Do you have any more info/leads etc on that project you mentioned in your last para about Davos?
    Many thanks,
    Hope all’s well at IDEO.

  7. Hi Tim, this is super exciting. Anyway I can get involved with such work at IDEO, San Fran?

    I am a marketing professional of more than 10 years in an FMCG company based in Singapore and have been dreaming to work for IDEO ever since I read the book “The Art of Innovation” by Tim Kelley as my passion for design was ignited. Let me know the way in!


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