Design for Ageing

Balancing two sides of the story

Article image

Over the next decade, the age balance of the world’s populations will shift decisively away from younger people to older adults, who will make up a growing proportion of the population in virtually every nation on the planet. According to a 2015 United Nations report, the number of people in the world aged 60 years or over is projected to grow by 56% between now and 2030: from 901 million to 1.4 billion.

The number of people aged 80 or over—termed “the oldest old”—will grow even faster than older adults overall, tripling in number from around 125 million today to 434 million by 2050. And ageing populations will grow faster in urban areas than rural ones. These profound demographic shifts hold significant implications for the design and innovation industries responsible for developing the products, systems and services for the near future.

Design is now generally regarded as a critical factor in enabling people to enjoy richer, healthier and more rewarding lives into old age. As life expectancy from birth increases dramatically as a result of falling fertility and mortality rates, and advances in medical science, more years are a given for most people. The question is how we will live those years. Will we enjoy independence, good health and a decent quality of life? Or will we become isolated, sick and marginalised? The old saying “years full of life or life full of years?” comes to mind.

Opinion divided

How design measures up to the challenge of demographic change is critical and opens a wide-ranging debate. But in developing the next generation of products and services to allow people to live independently for longer, there are two diametrically opposed design approaches that divide opinion.

In one camp are those who believe that technological advances in digital networks, robotics and artificial intelligence will enable human contact and support, which is expensive, to be replaced by intelligent machines; in the other camp are those who believe that design for an ageing society should be all about encouraging more social interaction, not less.

Both camps are fierce in their beliefs, as I discovered when I curated an exhibition at The Design Museum in London entitled New Old, which included design examples from both sides of the argument. The show, which has followed its London run with an international tour to Poland, Taiwan and the US, was subtitled “design for our future selves” and featured a range of innovations to show the span of creative possibilities.

The advocates of tech support for the elderly were given plenty of ammunition in my choice of exhibits. A tabletop robotic device called ElliQ, for example, designed by Yves Behar with Intuition Robotics, adopted artificial intelligence to learn and encourage the older adult’s personal goals, acting as a coach, connector and companion when nobody else is there. Another Yves Behar project, the Aura Power Suit, presented an intelligent garment with embedded motors, sensors and AI to support for the user’s natural body movements in getting up, sitting down and moving around without the intervention of a carer.

Auro Powered Clothing, by Yves Behar/Fuseproject is a new design aimed at older adults
Auro Powered Clothing, by Yves Behar/Fuseproject. Photo courtesy Fuseproject and Design Museum

No human contact

A project by Industrial Facility called Amazin Apartments showed an older person’s care- and maintenance-free apartment serviced from hidden corridors by a technology company, restocking the fridge, washing clothes and controlling temperature and energy use without a human being ever entering the home. However, in the many visitor and media comments in response to the New Old show, such tech-led innovation was strongly challenged. Many pointed out that the ultimate serviced apartment might prevent people popping down to the local shop for a pint of milk and a chat.

Others preferred design solutions that encouraged human contact such as Hemingway Design’s Gateshead housing estate that took older people out of their home to interact with neighbours via outdoor communal barbecues and table tennis tables, or Priestman Goode’s redesign of the mobility scooter—the Scooter for Life—that enables grandparents to interact directly with their micro-scooter-riding grandchildren by using a flexible new type of mobility vehicle.

A complicated picture

What emerged from the entire exercise was a sense of just how complicated the picture has become for designers to create new services for older people. We are on the brink of technological change that could revolutionise elder care, yet we naturally baulk at the idea of a total replacement of human contact with smart machines. We shudder at the rising costs of social care but won’t countenance a leap into the untried and untested.

That reluctance might change in the future. In an Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by The Design Museum to accompany the New Old exhibition, a quarter of respondents said they would prefer to be cared for by robots in old age than by humans—and this rises to a third among young people. The poll also asked which technologies might be most useful in older age. Driverless cars and remote monitoring sensors in the home topped the list: innovations that replace the chat of cabbies and care assistants with the hum of the machine.

Do we want to go the whole hog? Maybe well-designed hybrid services that comprise a mix of human and tech support are what’s required. Both sides of the design argument have some way to run. The New Old exhibition opens at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery in New York from February 7 to May 23, 2020, where no doubt the debate will continue to raise questions about how we design for an ageing society.

Main image: Amazin Apartments, Inside the apartment and in the serviced corridor by Industrial Facility. Photo courtesy Industrial Facility and Design Museum

Subscribe to our newsletter