Reimagining ageing. Rather designing getting older and wiser from the moment you were born

Cat Drew
Cat Drew
Aug 29, 2019 · 8 min read

At the Design Council, we do a lot of work around an ageing society. We run Transform Ageing, a 3 year programme supporting social entrepreneurs to create services to support people in later life, funded by the National Community Lottery Fund. Our built environment team and network of 400+ experts promote inclusive design, drawing on our own guidance and HAPPI standards. Our Spark accelerator takes to market products to support people continue to live independently in their homes. And our Design in the Public Sector programme has supported over 70 teams to improve local government services, many of those serving people in later life.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve also used this expertise to convene and facilitate a number of strategic sessions to support the Ageing Society Grand Challenge of the Industrial Strategy (with BEIS, DHSC, Innovate UK and the Centre for Ageing Better). It’s made me reflect on the use of design in this area: how it is valuable in both meeting immediate needs, but also critically challenging them. And we need to do far more of the latter.

Solving problems…

A lot of design for people in later life is around solving particular problems: how to prevent falls, how to reduce loneliness, how to allow people to continue to get out and about when they can no longer drive? Good design here is where it starts with the perspective of the person in later life (e.g. I want to stay living independently at home and avoid having to go into hospital) rather than the organisation (e.g. we need to increase hospital discharge rates). And where technology enables the solution rather than drives it.

…without stigmatising…

Better design is where it is inclusive. So it meets the needs of an ‘extreme user’ — or someone with a significant need, but is designed so it is attractive for all (and therefore reduces the stigma of using it). Over its 5 years, our product accelerator Spark has created some great products, which often initially come from a specific need the inventor has had for themselves, or someone close. And our design support helps them position it for different markets (beyond the original need), ensuring financial viability. For example, the Elba bra is designed for those with low dexterity and it attractive to wear (especially when compared to others on offer). Tickleflex is an insulin aid which puckers the skin before injection, making it more comfortable. It came out of a need for someone in later life, but now marketed for all (and scaredy cats like me). This year, one of the finalists is Ruby Gregory, who is designing a safety cooking glove, which is just as useful for when an older person is cooking, a kid is learning to help prep the salad, or a 30-year old is practicing with their new Santoku knife. Another is Jonathan Nwabueze, the inventor of the convertable shopping trolley, as useful for someone in later life as a young professional without a car coming home from work with too many groceries. Inclusive design is particularly important so that we start to use these products earlier, as we age to maintain our ‘functional’ ability for as long as possible, rather than once we start to lose it.

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The Elba bra, Tickleflex, and Ruby Gregory and Jonathan Nwabueze, one of this year’s Spark finalists

Starting with what is strong…

Better design is also when we understand people’s hopes, aspirations and strengths and amplifying those (rather than focusing on a problem). One episode of last year’s BBC Radio 4 The Fix was around social isolation among older people in rural Gloucestershire. It was great to have Robert, a visually impaired man in his 70s, co-designing solutions and sharing his experience of befriending others. It was the inspiration needed for the winning team to flip the challenge on its head, so it turned from ‘how can we reduce social isolation in older people?’ to ‘how can older people reduce social isolation in others?’ and come up with an idea for older women to support new mums with everyday activities. So important given we know 8% 18–24 year olds experience loneliness some or all of the time, compared to 5% of 50–64 year olds and 3% of 65–74 year olds (Office for National Statistics (2018)).

At the workshop we ran last week with the Centre for Ageing Better, we supported teams from six Local Enterprises Partnerships to look at ageing more broadly than health and care, out to housing, finance and work, and community. We also got them to map out the local assets of their areas: local values, natural environment, community, statutory and academic organisations, businesses and partnerships. We were able to come up with plenty of positively framed ‘how might we..’ statement such as ‘how might we keep people in work….’ or ‘how might we raise aspirations for the quality of later life living (design, housing, care)’ and brains fizzing with some more unusual local suspects for them to connect with. The challenge now is to develop these connections and get them aligned to this mission, or help them to see how ageing is central to their own ambitions.

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Natalie Turner from Centre for Ageing Better sharing evidence with LEP attendees

Transform Ageing, the social entrepreneur programme we run with UnLtd and the South West Academic Health Science Network bridges some of this use for design. The 62 social enterprises it has supported have addressed a series of challenge briefs ranging from supporting life transitions to keeping people physically active. There are some wonderful initiatives, from a personal alarm watch that allows people to live independently (without the stigma of wearing a pendant), Aquafolium a service for those living with dementia to access wild spaces or the Memory Cafe, an inclusive space for people to come and meet together.

Taken individually, they are all making life better for groups of people in later life. But importantly, 44%* of the 62 social enterprises Transform Ageing has supported have been set up by people over 50, and they are employing hundreds of people, many of whom are in later life. (*which we’ll confirm in a forthcoming evaluation). So taken together, they are creating a new self-sustaining market of services for people in later life where there was not much before, and challenging assumptions about employment (self and paid) of those in later life. As Jo Gatjkowska, our Design Council Head of Social Innovation and programme lead says, “the value of design is the power of people designing for themselves, which gives them more chance of thriving rather than surviving”.

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Memory cafe, Nedcare and Aquafolium: 3 x social enterprises we’ve supported in the South West which challenge notions of later life

But also reimagining entirely…

But sometimes, so much of what is holding current problems in place is the way that we think about them. For example, that people in retirement are retired, that ageing starts at 50, that care homes are the default (when we know from other countries that families play much bigger roles). Design can be powerful here in visualising radical alternatives, so that we can start to discuss them, and move towards (or away from!) them. This is called ‘speculative design’ and we (when I was in Policy Lab) used it for the first time ever in Government on the GO-Science Future of Ageing project that informed the Healthy Ageing Grand Challenge. Initially this was for research purposes. We needed to find out what people thought about the future of ageing, but it’s quite difficult to imagine what your own ageing will be like, let alone what your own ageing will be like if you were living 50 years into the future. So we commissioned Strange Telemetry to develop life-like photos of three scenarios of the future, so people could provide feedback.

Speculative design is being increasingly used in policymaking. Vasant Chari and Sanjan Sabherwal from the Policy Lab now argue that they don’t prototype policy but they use speculative methods to create what Dr Lucy Kimbell called ‘provotypes’ — or provocative visuals of what the future could look like. At the level of policy design, they aren’t testing usability (one of the usual holy trinity of prototyping) but just viability and desirability.

“Design either re-enforces or challenges the status quo. We don’t deliver prototypes but we create provotypes to reframe the question.” Vasant Chari.

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Two rendered images of what different alternative futures could look like, so we could engage people in research about how it might be to get older in 2050 (Policy Lab x Strange Telemetry)

At a recent Local Government Innovation Network that I co-run, Ellen Care and Ethan Howard ran a session about the future of care, and we used speculative methods (e.g. identifying valued professions or activities in our current society and applying these to care) to create some provocative statements to start the discussion. For example concepts around Grandparental Leave, a Help to Care ISA and a British Order of Empathy. Starting the conversations here allowed us to have a very different conversation to usual workplace discussions about local public spending and care (and how dire the situation is).

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Members of the Local Government Innovation Meetup discussing Ellen’s provocations

Designing for people in later life is not really for people in later life. It is for us all. Because when we design inclusively, we might start by designing for a particular market, but make it appealable for wider segments (making it both more commercially viable and less stigmatising). And because we are all ageing, and we have to think now about how we can maintain healthy and independent lives in the future. The future bit is important. Design has to not just ask ‘what can we do to improve the experience of later life now’ — which typical user-centred design does. But rather challenge ‘what could an alternative future where later life is valued look like?’ — and engage people in a dialogue about that.

If you’d like to be part of that hopeful, inclusive dialogue, please contact us at

Design Council

Making life better by design.

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