New thinking for old challenges

As the populations of developed countries get older, how can the creative industry rise to the challenge? The Design Museum’s NEW OLD exhibition sets out the issues and invited six design groups to create concepts addressing some of the key aspects of improving life as we get older

Among the many toxic elements of the Brexit vote fallout has been a heightened sense of intergenerational conflict. The notion that older Leave voters had sabotaged the future of their children and grandchildren has compounded existing resentment stemming from everything from house prices to university tuition fees. ‘You Baby Boomers had it easy’ the narrative runs, ‘and now you’re screwing everything up for the rest of us. Again!’

True, the populations of developed countries are getting older, but the idea that this group is inevitably a ‘burden’ is one that a growing body of policymakers, charities, academics and, indeed, designers, is seeking to challenge. With advances in healthcare and changing lifestyles it seems inevitable that demographic change will continue: how can we embrace this as an opportunity rather than panicking about the problems it will cause us?

Head in the Sky by Konstantin Grcic

Head in the Sky is one of seven projects commissioned by the Design Museum for its NEW OLD show. Each one explores a different aspect of ageing. Head in the Sky is “an outdoor space for working and thinking,” designer Konstantin Grcic says.Its form is a reference to Antonello da Messina’s 15th-century painting Saint Jerome in his Study, which depicts the saint sitting at a desk on a raised platform

“It is a safe concentration place for people of older age, who are still living life to the full and don’t want to retreat into their own private domain, especially mentally. The title hints at the opportunity to keep a clear head with advancing age, to dream and imagine.”

This topic is one that CR has returned to frequently over the past two years. Now, the challenge of how societies will respond to shifts such as, for example, the trebling of the number of over-90s in the past 20 years that has happened in the UK, is being taken up by the Design Museum in its exhibition NEW OLD.

Writing in the book accompanying the show, Design Museum Director Deyan Sudjic notes that: “Where we live, and how we live, how we support ourselves, and the quality of our lives as we age, represent the key questions that every society must address. They are questions that encompass medicine, economics, urbanism, technology and human behaviour. What connects them all, and makes them work for people’s lives, is design.”

Aura Powered Suit By Yves Béhar/Fuseproject & Aura

The Design Museum asked Yves Béhar and Fuseproject to “design a new product or service that is visionary and imaginative, doesn’t currently exist and responds to the dramatic shift in age balance to the over-65s”. Béhar and his team came up with two ideas, one of which is the Aura Powered Suit,a powered all-in-one garment that enhances the wearer’s physical abilities. It is designed to “react to the body’s natural movements, adding muscle power to complement the user’s strength in getting up, sitting down or staying upright”. More here

This, then, is one of the biggest design challenges – one of the biggest creative challenges – of our times. The NEW OLD exhibition has been curated by someone with extensive knowledge of these challenges – former Director of the RCA’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, which was set up to help improve the lives of older people, and former CR Editor, Professor Jeremy Myerson. With NEW OLD, he says, “I set out to show both the dramatic scale of demographic change and the potential of design to frame an effective response to this challenge. The term ‘new old’ refers not just to the next generation entering later life – a cohort with quite different experiences and expectations from the ‘old old’ – but also the opportunity to think afresh about designing for an ageing society.”

Elliq by Yves Béhar/Fuseproject & Intuition Robotics

Maintaining healthy levels of mental activity and avoiding loneliness can be just as important as physical health for older people. ElliQ is described by its designers as “an emotionally intelligent robotic companion, helping us to stay connected with loved ones, and to keep thinking and learning as we age”.In response to research into user needs carried out by its creators, among the functions of ElliQ  will be ‘nudging’ its user to meet goals such as being more active or contacting friends and family; video chat and sharing photos with family members and monitoring the user’s health. More here

Since the introduction of the Welfare State in the years after the Second World War, most Britons’ lives have followed a familiar pattern – education, followed by work, retirement and, finally, some form of care. In these clearly defined phases we proceed from being contributors to being dependants – which is where much of this narrative about older people being a ‘burden’ comes in. But this segmentation, many campaigners argue, is becoming less and less relevant. Education is not just for the young. Work, for many, will carry on well into later life. Rock bottom interest rates and hugely increased housing costs mean that few will be able to live comfortably on a pension alone for the three or four decades they may have left after the official retirement age. The opportunity, campaigners argue, is to redesign the way we live so that, as we become older, despite the physical deterioration that will inevitably occur, we still lead productive, active, engaged and fulfilling lives.

Spirit by IDEO

For the Community section of NEW OLD, the Design Museum asked IDEO to “design a new community spirit that creates an intergenerational sense of belonging”. IDEO’s concept imagines the role of an artificial intelligence assistant 30 years from now, which will help its user to identify and communicate with the ‘right’ social group for their needs. In the exhibition, IDEO imagine the everyday social life of a Spirit user called Simon (presented at the show, pictured above), showing how the system would augment his personal network. 

How and, importantly, where will we live these lives? For NEW OLD, Ipsos MORI asked the public where they would like to spend their later years – only one per cent wanted to spend them in a residential care home. Most wanted to live in their current home (31 per cent) or a new one by the sea or in a rural area (27 per cent). Another 10 per cent wanted to live in their own home with some adaptations.

Given the current crisis in the social care sector, if older people were able to stay at home, the benefits for both them and for wider society would be obvious, even if they needed support from visiting carers. But UK housing is ill-equipped to cater for these demands.

“Where we live, and how we live … and the quality of our lives as we age are key questions that every society must address.” Deyan Sudjic 

Judith Torrington is an architect and formerly Researcher in Architecture at the University of Sheffield. She is also the author of ‘Future of Ageing: adapting homes and neighbourhoods’, a 2015 report for the Government Office for Science. In an essay for the NEW OLD, she notes that UK housing stock is designed mostly for families. Furthermore, “The key features of accessibility – level access, flush thresholds, wide doors and circulation space, and entrance-level toilets – are found in only five per cent of homes in England.”

Although homes can be adapted to suit older people by installing, for example, handrails and stairlifts and by replacing traditional bathrooms with wet rooms or easy-entry showers, in almost a third of UK homes, such alterations would not be feasible, Torrington found. And the poor standard of design of many of these aids make them less than desirable additions for those who find the family homes they cherish taking on the air of an institution.

Exchange at the Design Museum
Exchange, by Special Projects

Exchange by Clara Gaggero & Adrian Westaway, Special Projects

Outside of your immediate family, how many older people do you know? If you knew more, would it change your perceptions about what it means to be old? In response to a brief from the Design Museum to “design a new product, service, system or experience to tackle ageing stigma and cut down prejudice”, designers Clara Gaggero and Adrian Westaway of Special Projects have created Exchange. This ‘living installation’ will give visitors to NEW OLD the opportunity to sit down and talk to a real older person, exchanging experiences and recording each conversation on a custom-built table comprising giant sheets of paper.

Failing eyesight is also an issue with, Torrington says, few homes designed to accommodate sensory loss. “Studies in the homes of people with low vision found that stairs and landings were not well-lit – a matter of concern as the risk of falling downstairs is doubled for people with sight loss,” she says.

“Acoustic environments in local neighbourhoods, shops, restaurants and cafés are also often unhelpful to people with hearing loss,” she argues.

However, Torrington notes, “The need for more and better-designed, age-appropriate housing in the public and private sectors has been recognised and supported across the political spectrum. Some exemplary new models have proved to be very popular with their residents and commercially successful, but they are not widespread. There is a wealth of design guidance and expertise available – the hope is that it can be taken on board.”

Given the preferences expressed in the Ipsos MORI research, Sarah Harper, Professor of Gerontology and Director of the Institute of Population Ageing at the University of Oxford, agrees that “appropriately designed life-long homes are the future”. The older population, however, is diverse, she argues, meaning that the idea of designing an ‘ideal’ home for all would be “inappropriate and undesirable”. Rather, she says, “The home should enable people to maintain a good quality of life across their lives, and be adaptable to suit our changing family, work, education, health and care needs.”

Scooter for life by Priestman Goode

Maintaining mobility is vital for older people, particularly as the services they rely on –from healthcare to shopping – become more dispersed. Driverless cars could help, particularly in rural areas with poor public transport. But what about more local journeys? The Design Museum asked PriestmanGoode to “design a future product, service or system that keeps people on the move as they get progressively older”. The result is Scooter for Life, a push scooter that can be adapted over time as mobility requirements evolve. More here

One key aspect of the home of the future will be as a venue for healthcare. Both the NHS and insurers such as Axa PPP Healthcare (sponsors of NEW OLD) have been stressing the importance of delivering healthcare to people in their homes rather than in hospital – it’s much cheaper, frees up hospital beds for more acute cases and is less stressful for patients, particularly those with long journeys to their nearest hospital.

In this new flexible world, homes will become increasingly important as places of work, both for younger and older adults

“With the growing widespread use of technology, our homes will become increasingly important for healthcare delivery,” Harper says. “Smart home technology can enable remote monitoring, giving older people and their caregivers a greater degree of flexibility and choice. Other potential benefits include healthcare professionals advising patients about how to address problems at home, reducing the frequency of costly emergency visits and unnecessary hospitalisation. A reduced need for face-to-face contact for routine diagnosis and monitoring could potentially lessen the burden on our stretched healthcare services and allow healthcare to take place in a familiar environment where older people feel safe.”

The Design Museum’s own Health Tech + You awards (also sponsored by Axa PPP and featured by CR) have highlighted the extensive work being done by the creative community in this area. Appropriate, easy-to-use and effective digital healthcare devices and systems that can monitor existing conditions and help to prevent new ones represent an area of enormous opportunity for the creative industry.

Amazin apartment by Sam Hecht & Kim Colin, Future Facility

Housing, as discussed in the main text, is key to providing a better future for our older selves. For the Home section of NEW OLD, the Design Museum briefed Future Facility to “design a future-proofed home environment for independent living into old age”. Sam Hecht and Kim Colin’s response imagines an apartment complex for today’s ‘Digital Natives’ as they reach their later years.

How will this generation’s familiarity with technology impact their lives in old age? Amazin Apartment explores the possibility of technology companies such as Amazon becoming property developers, “providing the ultimate serviced apartment in which the older person enjoys anxiety-free use of built-in appliances and technology”. More here

In addition to healthcare, the impact of the UK housing crisis will also affect the design of our future homes that, Harper notes, “may also increasingly become intergenerational living spaces. While we live in a society where independent living is prized, co-living may become more common with younger couples needing affordable housing and older generations nearby to offer and receive support as required. Good design and technology can help to create modern, flexible spaces that can be adapted for the eventual need for adult children to care for frail parents.”

And, as Harper argues, “in this new flexible world, homes will become increasingly important as places of work, both for younger and older adults. Older workers are already a fast growing group of home workers – able to combine economic activity with flexible leisure in the same space. Again, innovative infrastructure, design and technological changes will be needed to make our homes successful places of work…. Future housing has the potential to do far more than today’s housing, and design will be at the centre of this. If we get the design of our homes right, we will make significant progress towards addressing the challenge of the UK’s ever-ageing population.”

In the future then, the house will become much more than a place for leisure and rest – and much less likely to be inhabited by just one generation of a family. If we think about the things we used to have to leave home to do – work, shopping, education, entertainment – more and more of that is now available at home. Jobs that used to require presence in the workplace can now be done remotely – for most that means working from home. With the rising cost of education, many are now looking at Massive Online Open Courses as an alternative. Home shopping and entertainment is rising and rising. One of the fastest growing ‘sports’ is eSports, which most fans experience from home. So spaces that were once primarily about sleeping, eating, and relaxing are now where we work, learn and  play.

In the future then, the house will become much more than a place for leisure and rest – and much less likely to be inhabited by just one generation of a family.

But haven’t we been here before? In pre-Industrial Revolution Britain, most manual work other than agriculture was done in the home and buildings were designed to accommodate that – weavers’ cottages being a good example. And multi-generational homes were commonplace – as they still are in other parts of the world, where older people are not abandoned to lives of loneliness by adult children who see moving out and away from home as a rite of passage. Far from being a revolutionary idea then, perhaps the key to designing homes for the 21st century lies, in part at least, in those of the pre-20th century?

The Design Museum has, in a sense, been here before too. NEW OLD is, at least in part, the sequel to an earlier show. In 1986, Helen Hamlyn curated New Design for Old (accompanying catalogue below) at the V&A’s Boilerhouse Project – a precursor to the Design Museum. As she writes in an introduction to the new show, “My motivation was personal. My mother, then in her late 70s, needed support to live in her own apartment following an accident, but I discovered there was a dearth of well-designed products to help her. I searched the market myself but was shocked and disappointed to find that no designers had properly considered simple innovations to make life easier for older people. On my 50th birthday my husband Paul Hamlyn had given me the incredible gift of my own charitable foundation, and my first task was to think of ways to bring this issue to public attention.

“Fortunately, I had studied at the Royal College of Art in London and many of the leading designers of the day were personal friends. So I tried to enlist their support.” New Design for Old featured concepts by the likes of David Mellor, Kenneth Grange and Robin Day.

Catalogue for the original New Design for Old show at the Boilerhouse Project, 1986. Cover design by Vignelli Associates

Through the work of the Research Centre at the RCA, which Hamlyn subsequently set up, design in this area has moved on. “Thirty years ago, a principal concern was to design new products so that older people could continue to live independently in their own homes,” Hamlyn says. “This typically meant redesigning bathrooms, kitchens, furniture and lighting. Today, the focus is much broader – to enhance the experience of older age as people remain active in society and the workplace for longer. All types of design are required – from service and interaction design to fashion, transport and communication.”

For NEW OLD, Myerson has commissioned new work from a variety of design groups. Not only do these projects recognise the new concerns that Hamlyn outlines, they also, Myerson says, reflect changes in design itself. “Standalone disciplines such as product or graphic design have been challenged and disrupted by the more integrated, crosscutting approaches of service, interaction or experience design,” he says. “Designers now work mainly in interdisciplinary teams rather than alone, and cultural exploration has become as important as technical resolution across all fields of design.”

The age of no retirement

Draft for 10 Principles of Intergenerational Design

1. Safe and secure

Having your personal rights of safety, privacy,information security looked after and respected

2. Clear and intuitive

Being easy to understand and work out how to use

3. Free of time pressure

Optimising your use of time, being neither too slow nor too fast

4. Delightful

Finding things to be pleasing, beautiful or enjoyable


Being easy to find, reach or use either online or offline; being accessible as and when required, without being intrusive

6. Human connection

Helping you to feel connected to other people or have a two-way conversation

7. Flexibility

Being given choice, being easy to adapt and not punishing errors too harshly

8. Right effort

Needing the right level of physical or mental effort

9. Empowering 

Feeling that things contribute to self and social worth, or that they help your development and autonomy

10. Sustainable

Finding things to be sustainable – socially, economically and environmentally

Thus, the projects commissioned for NEW OLD “have largely been created by teams rather than individuals, and their focus on such themes as mobility, community, identity and work suggests a much broader canvas for age-related design interventions than the domestic environment. The design disciplines are broader too: the work on show is less object-based than it was 30 years ago – encompassing fashion, furniture, interior design, transport, service designs, interaction design and experience design alongside robotics, material science and artificial intelligence.”

Further to these shifts, NEW OLD acknowledges the work of the Age of No Retirement in urging designers to take an intergenerational approach. As we have reported previously in CR, the Age of No Retirement is a social enterprise set up by Georgina Lee and Dr Jonathan Collie in order to engender design-led solutions that work across all ages.

Spread from catalogue for the original New Design for Old show at the Boilerhouse Project, 1986, featuring chair designs for older people by Jørgen Rasmussen

For NEW OLD, the group is presenting its 10 Principles of Intergenerational Design, an update to the original seven Principles of Universal Design developed by a research team at North Carolina State University in 1997. These principles, TAONR say, “provide a blueprint for the design of all products, services and processes, across all sectors, to engage and serve a modern, multi-generational customer base”. Age inclusive design, they believe “is the future of design. It is people-centric, not product-centric, and benefits everyone at any age.”

This is one of the key lessons of NEW OLD. At a time when our society is more divided than at any point in living memory, we have to get past the idea that ‘the old’ are a problem. Yes of course there are massive social challenges posed by the demographic changes we are seeing, but demonising a section of society is not going to help that.

As Myerson says, “The NEW OLD project seeks to reverse that mindset, to give pause for thought with a simple message: design-led innovation can lighten the load of ageing. Through this approach, people facing greater longevity can enjoy fuller, healthier, more rewarding lives in the future – ‘years full of life rather than life full of years’.

“This is not to ignore the medical realities of ageing – the physical, sensory and cognitive impairments that come to us all eventually,” he continues. “However, we must recognise that many older people are disabled by the design of the environment around them, rather than intrinsically disabled. Designers have a responsibility to use all the advances in practice and technology available to them to reimagine products, settings, systems and services that will enhance the experience of later life.” And thus improve all our lives.

NEW OLD, the first in a series of pop-up exhibitions at the Design Museum in London, runs until  February 19. It is curated by Jeremy Myerson, Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art, and sponsored by the Helen Hamlyn Trust, and AXA PPP healthcare, supported by Arthritis Research UK. An accompanying book featuring the full essays quoted here is available from the Design Museum. 

This piece appears in our February 2017 issue, along with detailed descriptions of the six different projects. 

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