Leveraging design expertise for an ageing society

Two uncontested facts about the UK: first, we have an ageing population that can be especially vulnerable in a public health crisis; second, we have one of the world’s largest and most advanced design sectors, with a hard-won global reputation for crafting brilliant solutions. One might have been forgiven for thinking that the needs of the former could be easily met by the creativity and expertise of the latter. But despite lots of effort and good intentions, this has not turned out to be the case.

In fact, quality of design (or lack of it) has been identified as a key barrier to successful ageing in the UK. Evidence suggests that access to decent housing and usable technology can make a huge difference to our lives as we age, for example, but we are currently falling short in those areas where design matters most.

So, why is there a mismatch between what our ageing society needs and what our designers can bring? The UK’s so-called ‘longevity market’ is still barely a market at all, as most products and services to support older people tend to be specified only at the point of medical crisis when public money kicks in. This market is also fragmented with lots of small firms making aids and appliances in a ‘special needs ghetto’ lacking investment for proper design and tooling, when high standards of inclusive design and deep-pocketed investors are needed.

There is little coordination of design at a national level, resulting in some duplication of start-up effort and a shortage of successful innovations to hold up as exemplars. Promising design research produced in our universities and research institutes is not being translated effectively into new products and services. And emerging technologies are not being interrogated in sufficient depth from a human-centric design viewpoint.

All of these reasons underpin the thinking behind the launch of the Design Age Institute, which starts its work on 1 May 2020. This new initiative will be led by the Royal College of Art in partnership with the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, the Design Museum, National Innovation Centre for Ageing at Newcastle University, and the International Longevity Centre. It has been set up in recognition that design needs to stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution – not a barrier to successful ageing, but an enabler.

The Grand Challenge on an Ageing Society, part of the UK Government’s industrial strategy, provides the context in which the institute will operate – and the current coronavirus crisis, which is exposing so many isolated older people to harm, adds a special resonance to its activities.

The new institute’s programme will do four things. First, it will conduct research on both the supply-side and demand-side aspects of design for ageing, creating the UK’s first national directory of design expertise in this area and scoping the opportunities for design-led innovation. Second, it will build a national design-for-ageing network with industry commitment and investment; third, deliver demonstrator projects at points of greatest need; and, fourth, engage public audiences in the debate about the future of ageing through a programme of design lectures, showcases and exhibitions.

In the midst of a terrifying pandemic which is targeting the UK’s older citizens in large numbers, a focus on safety, sterility and isolation is essential right now to save lives. But beyond the lockdown, we need a vigorous national debate about how we will support healthy ageing and elder care in the future.

Social connection, economic independence and active lifestyles are important themes, and design (especially of the built environment) will be a key determinant of success. Our homes, neighbourhoods and workplaces will all need to do a better job of adapting to demographic change. Design, which makes new ideas visible and translates people’s needs into tangible form, can be an agent of change by showing the art of the possible.

The RCA’s Design Age Institute owes its genesis to the 2016 Foresight report Future of An Ageing Population, which was led by Oxford’s Professor Sarah Harper and to which I contributed as part of an academic expert group. This report revealed how policymaking alone would not be enough to engineer a transformational shift in support for ageing communities in Britain – designers of the key elements that make up our environment and infrastructure needed to be part of the story.

The great graphic designer Alan Fletcher once described design as ‘a mental utensil’ – essentially a practical tool that requires a lot of thought to get right. In the field of ageing research, now is the time to put new design thinking into practice.

About the Author

Jeremy Myerson is Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art and an Honorary Professorial Fellow at Oxford Institute of Population Ageing.