Lekshmy Parameswaran is Director of Research and Strategy at design consultancy fuelfor and one of the judges of the Smart Ageing Prize. This Challenge Prize is offering €50,000 for the best innovation that uses the Internet of Things to empower older adults to achieve the quality of life they aspire to, socially and independently. As part of our series of interviews with the prize judges, she provides insight into what she will be looking for from the winning entry.
Q. What do you consider to be the challenges older people face in today’s world?
Lekshmy Parameswaran: I think there are issues surrounding long-term care and ageing that we need to tackle today and there are further challenges that are also emerging for tomorrow’s generation. I would like to answer it from both perspectives.
Starting with the challenges older people face today, I think a major issue is isolation. Older people are so often isolated on so many levels from society, when they feel so lonely, often to the point of actually dying alone at home. This is an area where we need to do much better in ensuring that people remain socially connected in order to deliver meaning and value in later life.
On another level, we also need to ensure that physical access to support is maintained, particularly when mobility is restricted and capability starts to decline. This happens with natural ageing, of course, but as we are living longer with chronic disease and its related disability and obstacles, it is more important to keep people physically connected.
Another challenge older people face is with technology. We have children today who try to scroll through ordinary books as they do on an iPad, while older people are confronted with smartphones which they have no idea how to use and can even lose the skills to use simple, analogue technology like radios.
This technology gap will continue as people get older and disconnected from the new tech that is developed. This can leave people isolated in terms of the kind of skills they need to use the technology that can improve their quality of life.
I think ageing right now in most societies is very institutional and the choices available to us often mean compromising your identity and there is a lack of personalisation – and older people want to cling to who they are and not just be “old”. We are still ourselves as we age, but I think it is a huge challenge to maintain that as society is today.
Q. How can IoT best address these challenges?
L.P: I think the promise of the Internet of Things is fantastic, offering the possibility of providing solutions that really connect people so we can really live our lives in a seamless way, from moment to moment, place to place.
I think to make the most of this, we will need to design more than just a technology infrastructure but design and plan the human interactions we have with that technology. That way we will have the solutions that not only work technically, but feel right and provide meaning in our lives, too.
If we really start by understanding what people need then the technology should serve the need rather than the other way around and this way we will have the products people actually want: no one really wants to get old so we need to make these solutions engaging and non-stigmatising. We need to look at it on a human scale and consider the interactions people have in everyday life – and then go on to make the technology work towards supporting that. This is another big challenge with IoT.
I think there’s a big promise here and I can imagine that we will be able to implement these systems on a very large scale but once again, I believe we should come back to the notion of quality, personalised care and support and tailored to a personal lifestyle. I think there are some very interesting projects where IoT is being explored on the scale of an urban community or at district level and at this level you can have technology do its best but still hang on to the human fabric that makes a community. Finding the right scale of IoT innovation is important.
A good example of this is a dementia village in the Netherlands, which is a community that has been designed to deliver a care service at different levels of need, where people can live with this care around them and it somehow normalises their life living with dementia. This isn’t just about the technology, it’s also about service innovation and testing out different policies and actionable strategies.
Then in Barcelona there is a project called RADAR, which is looking at the care given by informal caregivers (family and friends) from their side and helping them. Here you have a very cohesive social fabric and it’s something that the city has consciously designed to enable and empower its citizens. So, for example people in the community who tend to know the elderly in that community are enabled to care for each other. It is very interesting that when you empower that community with technology and tools or other services, then you start to get an interesting scale of ecosystem or solution, and it is showing to work very well in this culture.
Q. What are you looking for in the entries to the AAL Smart Ageing Prize?
L.P: Being a designer myself, I am going to be looking for three things. Firstly, I want to see that the ideas being presented are grounded in the real world and have not been cooked up in an office or a meeting room. I really would like to see that people have gone out there and really listened to what is going on and what end users and stakeholders need and to use that to come up with new propositions.
Secondly, I want to see ideas that have translated that real world insight in an appropriate way and have considered the interaction with the people they are designed for. Ideas really need to have thought through the end user experience. What is the identity of the service? Has it been designed to meet the expectations people have of it? Does it live up to the promise it is going to deliver? Is interacting with this product or service easy and engaging? Is it usable within the context of its target users – where they live, what they need? When they need it? The entries need to have considered all these different touch points. Without doing so, you can end up with a great solution that nobody can use or nobody wants to use. You miss your target audience.
Finally, it is also important that the ideas have good business models in place. How will your product get to the people who will use it? Is it something prescribed for the end user, or will they buy it? Where will it be available and what is the cost? These and more are potential barriers and need to be considered early and throughout an iterative innovation process.
It is important to mix design, business and the technology development constantly at different stages of the innovation process – and to involve the end user more and more at every stage. You will then see co-created solutions, with real people actually telling you what they would and wouldn’t pay for, why they would pay for some things and not others, what they expect to be paying for and what they expect others to provide. It’s this level of inquiry and investigation that will really bring robust and sustainable ideas to the judges.
The AAL Smart Ageing Prize is open for entries until 13 May.