Developing tech-enabled products and services that assist us as we age is a relatively new frontier. However, the vision of a world where people in advanced years can meaningfully participate in society and overcome the physical and cognitive challenges of age is slowly but steadily becoming a reality.
And not before time! It is an indictment of our societal priorities that for so long, the physical, emotional and financial needs of ageing have been under-addressed. In addition, the most experienced, wisest members of our societies have been left out of many of the benefits of a digital, connected world that younger people enjoy.
In Japan, in particular, the pattern of demography is such that we cannot ignore how to improve every aspect of longevity. The idea of a society with the population age profile we have that doesn’t lean into this challenge is practically, financially and morally unacceptable.
Yet, despite the best intentions, designing products for the elderly is a highly challenging pursuit. Unlike what we see in the world of innovation, where inventors speculate a use case and a demand for their product that may not really exist, it is easy to perceive a vast range of unmet needs for the aged.
But defining problems on the user’s terms is not easy. Let’s take something as simple as a smart speaker. The device should solve many problems. A voice-activated speaker is, in theory, much less complicated to operate than an ordinary phone, let alone a smartphone. It should be, therefore, more accessible for an older adult to use the speaker instead of a phone to call one’s loved one.
Unfortunately, my experience with trying to integrate this device into my elderly parents’ lifestyle has been wholly unsuccessful. Although I approached the task with great enthusiasm, it became tough to get them to want to engage with the product after some frustrating first attempts. That particular device is currently gathering dust in their apartment in Sydney.
It’s critical to accept that the user’s view of their needs and our occasionally heavy-handed view of what needs fixing is often not aligned. Indeed the idea that ageing needs ‘fixing’ may need a re-think. In Japan, the very definition of ‘old’ is quite different to western countries. It is also not uncommon for caregivers to be in their 70s for family members in their 90s.
In March of 2022 we surveyed a population representative group of online-connected Japanese aged 16 to 89. This was the broadest sample in terms of age we have ever taken at The Carter Group! We were highly encouraged by the finding that those who make it into their 70s and 80s in Japan do enjoy a sense of being useful. Three-quarters of those surveyed in their 80s feel they have a role to play at or outside of home. Perhaps it’s the case that ageing people tend to value their increasingly limited options more highly.
Linked to the findings on people in their 70s and 80s feeling useful the happiest cohorts in our online connected sample were also in these same age groups. But despite the cheerful emotional disposition of many of the aged, the realities and impacts of ageing are real. Many people resist acknowledging the idea that they require support, even when it is evident that they do. So as physical and mental challenges mount up, a positive mental attitude needs all the practical support it can get.
When we ask the question to people over 60 about their openness to new technologies such as robotics and digital services, we find about half have at least an open mind
About one in ten are what we could call ‘Enthusiasts”. This active-ageing over 60-year-olds, who love age-tech, are special people. Their basic approach to life is positive. It’s not hard to imagine them having been among the first to try out a car phone – back when they came out in the 80s
Indeed age-tech enthusiasts enjoy a sense of accomplishment and mission. Two-thirds feel they have accomplished something in their lives, and three-quarters feel they still have something they want to do!Purpose and general enthusiasm for life are their hallmarks.
Our fictional composite, Keiko, is a poster child for age-tech. Her quote is actually from an actual respondent, when asked how they felt about using an exo-suit that would give back movement for those who are challenged in that regard.
Happiness in life and enthusiasm for age-tech are linked. When people feel better, they want to do more for themselves. Having a reason to get up in the morning – a great working definition of ikigai, fuels our need for technology – it’s not the other way around. As we develop age-tech products and services, we need to partner with the kind of positive people who can make a meaningful contribution to the development and delivery of tech that genuinely enhances lives and that they want to adopt
At The Carter Group, our big hairy audacious goal is to create a new model of development and diffusion for age-tech. We call this new model Living Best and have started this in Japan, building on the fact that this country is the world’s real-time laboratory for age-tech development. This model is open for domestic and international players, offering a proper proving ground for international collaboration.
We are building two communities working hand in hand to realise this vision. Firstly a purpose-driven user community. We are currently recruiting these super enthusiastic seniors. Secondly, a purpose-driven professional community will include many readers of this article … startups, corporations, academics, government and providers working on age-tech or would like to start.
We are working towards a world where:
- Age-tech solutions are conceived and co-created in close collaboration.
- The type of leading users who can and will accelerate development and adoption are built into the design and marketing process
- Providers and those with a commercial interest in the sector help each other for the benefit of the users.
- Startups have access to a motivated community of interested providers and users they can tap into to give birth to the next big breakthrough.
Perhaps Don Norman, who is director of The Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego. Don is 86 and a massive proponent of user-centric design; puts it best:
It’s not enough that we build products that function, that are understandable and usable; we also need to build products that bring joy, excitement, pleasure, fun and, yes, beauty to people’s lives.
Living Best is a way to leverage emotion and happiness to create successful age-tech. Doing so will help us address one of the most critical challenges of our time. The person you help might just, one day, be yourself.
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