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The Opportunity of Ageing

Ageing Population

The Opportunity of Ageing

The challenges of population ageing in a digital age were debated by Sphere Network members at the November round table event, hosted by the Northern Design Centre at Baltimore House. Attendees were drawn from multiple sectors, with representatives from the National Innovation Centre for Ageing; the Institute for Ageing; the Future Homes Group; several organisations engaged in the build, management and maintenance of homes; charities working with the ageing population; and private sector suppliers of innovative solutions. This made for a lively and informative debate and introduced participants to other experts in the field of whom they had not previously been aware.

Healthy Ageing and Smart Business

Life expectancy is increasing by five hours a day. Each morning when we wake, we have another five hours in the bank for our potential future. The challenge is for this ageing to be healthy. There is a clear curve of age-related decline which is consistent across all cultures. Several people were disturbed to discover that the first sign of descent towards a need for assistance and ultimately for care is an inability to cut your own toenails. We want to do all we can to ensure that the inevitable loss of faculties is late in onset and rapid in conclusion, not simply for our own quality for life but also to reduce the care burden.

Environment plays a huge part in delaying the onset of this ageing curve, increasing the healthy life expectancy. A ‘Metro Map’ produced by the Institute for Ageing shows the average healthy life expectancy at each station on the Tyne and Wear Metro. Comparing affluent suburbs like Gosforth with inner-city Byker shows an eight-year difference. There is a huge opportunity for environmental improvement.
This opportunity should be exploited by business, but there are several significant barriers.

  • Ageing can be stigmatising, and brands do not want the association.
  • Design and marketing professionals are young, with an average age of 34. As has been observed in the wider diversity debate, if the designers are not diverse, then neither will be the products and services that come to market.
  • A lack of aspirational design discourages the consumer. If aids to longer healthy living look as if they should be in a hospital, they are resisted. Why should a handle in a shower remind someone they are getting old? If the design is right, aids should enhance the home.
  • This is a very complex market and is not well segmented, making it difficult for businesses to target effectively. Are you selling to housebound fifty-year-olds or skydiving ninety-year-olds? Is the user or the carer making the buying decision? Marketing to the ageing population requires a sophistication not seen in younger audiences.

There is also a lack of understanding of the distinction between health care and social care, and the third corner of this triangle which, locally, is Public Health England. There is a disconnect due to organisational and funding structures, and while we can see that a focus on social care would reduce the burden on healthcare, there is not enough strategic thinking. A closer link between health and social care (although not joint responsibility) could spark new opportunities.

The challenge to innovators is clear. We must develop more products, leverage our networks, and create sustainable businesses.

We have an extraordinary opportunity to achieve this with the development of Newcastle’s National Innovation Centres (NICA AND NICD). Due to open in 2020, the NIC will house two complementary disciplines, Ageing and Data, with the former incorporating the Health Research Innovation Observatory.

Housing at the heart of opportunity

Should we consider homes, technology, then health, or focus first on health, then the technology to manage it, and build this into the home? Participants approached this question from both directions.

The Future Homes Group sits firmly in the latter camp, engaging with innovation to start with the end in mind. By aiming for a ‘quadruple helix’ of academic, municipal, business, and third sector collaboration, this group is building test homes encompassing ageing, low carbon living, and emerging technology. There is scope for significant monitoring and ‘nudging behaviour’ to help people to retain their independence for as long as possible. The mantra of ‘supportive technology for humans’ – not for the old folk – struck a chord with all present.

The approach to technology in the home must be flexible. At the stage of new build, the technology will be cutting edge, but for those managing housing stock a house is an asset that must last at least 25 years. What cutting edge technology was being installed in homes in 1992? Cable television? The speed of change for technology is much faster than for other utilities, and to stay up to date this involved continual retro-fitting. We have some idea of the scale of the challenge, and can future-proof to an extent with plug-and-play, wireless technology, and the burgeoning Internet of Things. A note of caution was sounded, however, around concerns that have been raised over 5G wireless, and also we were reminded that we can still leverage existing devices with bridge technology. We don’t yet know what we don’t know.

A challenge identified was the disconnect between the sources of innovative technology and the relationship to housing developers and managers. National housing organisations do not tend to look at innovation arriving on a regional level. Innovating academics deliver their output in the form of peer-reviewed papers targeted at other academics. Innovative businesses must prove that their solutions are affordable and effective, and that the company is not likely to go bust. Overall it was recognised that the landscape is hugely fragmented in terms of needs and the political and funding structures that seek to address them.

Effective communication, support for innovators, and management of risk, will all contribute to progress.

Where is technology going?

User interfaces are moving rapidly from buttons, to movement, to voice. There is no digital literacy required to use the technology that exists, and many solutions are hiding in plain sight.
An iPhone is fully accessible to a blind user. Siri navigates seamlessly in response to a grandmother’s questions. Alexa is moving towards integration with open banking, using voice biometrics that are reaching a level of complexity where tone can be detected, to ensure that speakers are not acting under duress. It can also run through a home security checklist (have you locked the front door and turned off the oven?), deliver medication reminders, and might become a viable virtual interface to medical professionals and a helping hand in the fight against the greatest challenge, loneliness.

These are early days, but both Microsoft and Amazon have pushed massively into healthcare, recognising that this is a huge market. It’s true that this whole area should be much more commercial. We should be encouraging businesses to innovate, and paying the premium of adopting technology early so that it can scale effectively and reduce costs as it matures. With a bill approaching £40,000 per person per year for a care home, how far would that sum go in developing and delivering preventative care? Participants also reflected that there has been huge innovation to date but that development has been piecemeal, with much hyperbole. Perhaps innovation is actually required in the business model, not the technology itself.


Sphere Network aims to join the dots between the agencies and organisations represented in this debate, and the wider regional ecosystem.

We will develop a regional heatmap: what is happening where? Where is the demand?
We will continue to connect people: “You don’t know who you don’t know.”

For more information and to join the heatmap, contact us.

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  1. Pingback: The Opportunity of Ageing | Sphere Network Event Report | Kate Baucherel

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