Re-designing older age: an exhibition visit.

I was in London this past week and had a couple of hours to spare between meetings and on the recommendation of a colleague I found my way to the Design Museum in Kensington. The building itself and its displays are well worth a visit – not least as the air conditioning is fantastic in a city with 30-degree heat even when I was there! But I was there specifically to see an exhibition curated by the Design Age Institute in collaboration with the Design Museum, The Future of Ageing, which explores ‘how design is transforming the way society can support everyone to age with greater agency and joy.’

I have written quite a few times in this blog and elsewhere about how we need as a whole society to reconceive the way in which we design the built environment to better include and accommodate the needs of an ageing population. Specifically, I have suggested that we need to stop building aged care facilities separate and apart from the communities in which people  actually live. I have remarked about how ridiculous it seems to me that so many of our housing developments are inaccessible to the needs of a population which will become the dominant group within the foreseeable future. I cannot remember the last time I was in a modern built housing estate which had an adequate mix of bungalows or at least accessible accommodation.

The Future of Ageing exhibition was interesting, less from the perspective, that it was coming up with starkly original designs or suggestions but more from the fact that it argued about the urgent criticality that the whole design community, from technology and robotics, from townscape to rural environmental planning, from kitchenalia to social media, have all to seriously start accommodating the needs of a population who will soon be its majority customers and consumers. In so doing designers have to involve older people in the design process and have to stop treating older people as a homogenous group as if older age is bereft of difference and diversity.

The exhibition highlighted an often-ignored reality that although by 2040 more than a quarter of the UK’s population will be over the age of 60 what is less well known is the fact that over 70% of that ageing population will not be needing support or assistance in normal and daily tasks and activities. Those of us working in social care have a narrowed perspective for obvious reasons, but it is true today and hopefully even more the case tomorrow that the vast majority of older people will not need care and support until a very late stage in life if ever. Yet as a society we continue to view older age so negatively, as a deficit and as something which limits ability perhaps especially in the world of design. As the exhibition declares it is time to put some joy back into ageing which was put succinctly by one contributor in a short and incisive video when he declared “Don’t let people with no abracadabra stop you from making magic!”

‘The Future of Ageing display celebrates how design can help us reimagine products, services and environments to enhance our experience of living in later life with a selection of prototypes, sketches and research from projects that are being developed by Design Age Institute and its partners.’

One of the prototypes I enjoyed the most was ‘The Centaur’ – a self-balancing, two-wheeled personal electric vehicle for people with difficulties getting around. Its inspiration and designer is Paul Campbell from Centaur Robotics who asserts that “I want to end the social isolation resulting from reduced mobility and I believe good design can do that.” The Centaur is designed for the world as it is – it can fit through normal-sized doorways, under desks and tables, and gives a significant degree of autonomy to the person who uses it.

There were several insights within this exhibition but the one that left a mark on me was the statement that we should stop seeing the world around us as one we need to change in order for people to fit in but that we should enable people as they are to better fit into the world as it changes. The argument of the past that it is the environment that ‘disables’ and so we must change it to enable inclusion, is put aside by the assertion that we must equip those who are ageing to enable them to better use the world, adapt to their environments as they find them, rather than to seek to change the world around us. I personally think the issue is a both/and but I cannot deny the practical insight of someone like Patricia Moore who is an industrial designer, when she asserts, “Stop designing for disability and start designing for usability.”

From ‘Gita’ – a hands-free cargo-carrying robot, the ‘Home Office to Age in Place’ – created to integrate flexible living and working space for later life, and ‘Hearing Birdsong’ – a digital ‘audioscape’ app that uses the sound of birdsong to engage visitors with their hearing health there is a lot to see in this small exhibition but all the designs have one thing in common and that is they perceive age as a positive source of inspiration and enjoyment, rather than something to be ignored and excluded.

But the challenge for us all is to look beyond the stereotype and presumption and to re-design the world around us so that it becomes truly inclusive, as one participant said of age in general: “It’s not the way you look  it’s your outlook that matters.” For after all as the hashtag of the event declared #WeAreAllAgeing

Donald Macaskill