In three years’ time, half the population of Europe will be over 50. Is design keeping up?
None of us is getting any younger. But as one who’s just celebrated a ‘significant’ birthday, it’s a relief to know that I'm not yet officially old. According to research in the NEW OLD show that’s just opened at the Design Museum, in the UK, we are only considered old if we’re 59, so some way to go yet at least. In Greece, old age is thought to begin even later in the late 60s, and if I lived there, I could even call myself young; according to respondents in the European Social Survey, Greeks and Cypriots consider that youth ends in our early 50s compared with in the UK, where it’s thought to end at an average age of 35.
This fascinating show, curated by Jeremy Myerson, the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design, is full of statistics that convincingly make the case for why designers – and society in general – should be gearing up far more vigorously for an ageing population. By 2020, half of the population of Europe will be over 50. By 2040, one in seven people in the UK will be over 75. One third of our householders already include older people. The 85+ age group is the fastest growing part of the population.
Fortunately, there’s more here than data to catch the eye ranging from robot assistants to a dementia-friendly pet toy seal and retro-fittable magnetic buttons. NEW OLD is organised around themes of ageing, identity, home, community, working and mobility and includes designs on the market or in development as well as new commissions created specially for the show, such as Konstantin Grcic’s Head in the Sky, a galvanised zinc mesh structure for outdoor working and thinking designed for older people who don’t want to stay indoors.
Creative Review’s advertising challenge exhibit tackles the stigma of ageing by asking agencies to come up with ways that present it positively. Karmarama’s concept is good fun – a book case of volumes by the same fictitious author with titles reflecting the wisdom acquired over a lifetime: Dealing with Infidelity, Learning to Laugh at Myself and one of my favourites, Taking up Tennis at 40. Mother’s campaign for ‘New Old Fine Aged Spirit’ similarly sought to distil ageing benefits such as experience, wisdom and perspective, with the punchline ‘New Old knows the best is yet to come’. Let’s hope.
There are plenty of great innovations in this exhibition, from the foldable wheels designed by Duncan FitzSimmons that can make travelling so much easier for those with wheelchairs to PriestmanGoode’s Scooter For Life, an inspired trolley/scooter designed to stylishly assist mobility. Ensuring that homes are suitable/adaptable for the ageing population as their needs change is an obvious priority, not only because most older people want to remain in their homes but because of the importance of avoiding unnecessary hospitalisation that would further increase the strain on the NHS.
I'm not entirely sure about the serviced apartment concept Amazin Apartments proposed by Future Facility. Here, residents benefit from anxiety-free built-in appliances and technology such as refrigerators and washing machines which are positioned so that they can be monitored, stocked or serviced from the rear via a network of unseen corridors without disturbing the occupants. While it’s a potentially useful idea for discretely assisting independent living (especially for those who feel alienated by technology), the lack of social contact fails to address the loneliness that can be such an issue among the elderly.
Hats off to Norway however, which has embarked on a national plan for a ‘universally designed’ Norway by 2025. Sixteen government agencies have signed up for it, with projects including an age-friendly park and Bergen Light Rail, lauded as the first public transport system to employ universal design.
Using cutting edge technology in a useful, visually-appealing and person-friendly way is a theme. These include the ElliQ robot companion, designed by Fuseproject and Intuition Robotics, which uses artificial intelligence to learn what the user needs such as listening to music or speaking to family or friends – and also enables care-givers or relatives to monitor the user.
While there is undoubtedly huge potential in finding ways for technology to augment older people’s lives, traditional face-to-face contact is still the best way of combating loneliness and enhancing cross-generational understanding. One of the highlights for me was talking to Ann, one of a bunch of game older people who have volunteered to participate in the Exchange installation. Here, visitors to the exhibition can ask the volunteer one question, and answer one in return, on ageing or anything they like, and set up an enjoyable dialogue. It’s a simple idea, but surprisingly rewarding.
This show is relevant to everyone – it’s our future, after all. And when we get there, we want to like what we find.
NEW OLD, until 19 February, Design Museum, 224-238 Kensington High Street, London, W8 6AG