Everyone is getting older. This is good.

John Sunart
Mar 18, 2015 · 6 min read
How do we deal with entwined social, technological and personal urban futures

On March 17th The Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing (MICRA) held a short question and answer session surrounding the challenge of creating “Age-Friendly Cities”. The real takeaway from the whole event was simple.

The population is going to have more life experience than ever before. This can be a good thing. So let’s treat it like that.

It’s time to shift paradigms from one in which old people are a drag, a waste of decaying space who take up houses young couples could be being valuable in, to one in which we recognise and encourage these bastions of wisdom as an opportunity to reform our broken communities and shape the future of our cities.

So I’ve paraphrased. But that’s what the really very diverse group of reserved people who gathered in a huge lecture theatre at Manchester University wanted to shout.

The panel consisted of Prof Chris Phillipson, a charismatic and engaging sociologist who also happens to be director of MICRA, Prof Rachel Cooper, professor of Design Management at Lancaster University, and also the co-director of ImaginationLancaster (along with a wide variety of other titles), Bernadette Ashcroft, CEO of AgeUK Tameside, and Paul McGarry, from Manchester City Council.

All of the panelists raised a good breadth of topics from thought leading conjecture right down to brass tacks delivery finding their place in the unfortunately brief opening and closing remarks.

With this question and answer session being framed around the Future Cities projects Rachel and Chris did an admirable job of shepherding the conversation back out to the 20–40 year horizons and away from solving todays problems tomorrow. It struck me how this kind of positioning is unusual in this kind of debate — indeed an audience member raised the challenges of working and planning for a distant horizon when the political horizon, which inherently (though not necessarily correctly) rules the public sector, was only ever the next election — but also how much of a gleaming opportunity it is for design to embrace the complexity of this far reaching futurecasting on a national level.

A large portion of the evening was dedicated to the question of transport, though an interesting enough discussion in this forum it rapidly became a series of gripes about the current system. What was highlighted to me was a parallel with my previous work in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

No matter what services you provide, if someone can’t get to it, it may as well not exist.

I have talked about the Highlands and Islands as being a distributed city; a place with all the resources and population of a city but with the added benefit of 27,000 square kilometres of beautifully landscaped parkland. One of the key issues in this distributed city is how folk can get from A to B, and apparently it doesn’t really matter how far A is from B. As a society we haven’t sussed out this issue. It leads me to wonder how we could compare the travel needs, and travel purpose (you’d be surprised, Bernadette told us, by the number of people who use the bus as a social space) of an extremely rural population and an extremely urban one. Could we learn something which could lead to “re-ruralisation” of local communities combined with “urban” methods of access to centralised resources? — a half formed thought, but I would be interested in exploring.

One challenge from the audience on the transport issue which was worth noting centred around the types of wheels people use.

We all have wheels, maybe not a car or a bus, but a bike, a scooter, or a wheelchair.

With all ages of people taking to less car-centric forms of transport, how can we design cities around providing safe and pleasant travel experiences for everyone. Rachel mentioned the use of shared transport routes, where Cars, bikes and pedestrians shared a single carriage way, with no expectations of priority, forcing everyone to be more considerate in their use of the space. And once again brought the future in to play, considering what technology might be in place to assist an ever growing group of technologically able older people.

There was a rather strange aside at this point, notable because the likes of which happened a few times through the evening, where one of the panel implied that many transport and mobility issues occurred because they systems were designed by “people in their 20s and 30s” who don’t have the insight or interest to design for accessibility of older and disabled people. I sincerely hope this isn’t the case. If it is then Manchester City Council needs to take a good long look at who they’re employing and we as an industry of designers need to sort these people out.

Speaking as someone who has designed extensively for people with dementia, but doesn’t have dementia, I know that by working with people I can produce more innovative and rounded outcomes that people completely absorbed in that world would find. Fresh eyes are wonderful things.

The reason I can design for dementia without having dementia? Simple. I’m a Designer.

Though only an undertone this youth-worrying from a few people concerned me slightly, though it was heavily offset by the rallying call of “listen to the children” which occurred later in the evening.

Next was a short discussion which centered around a simple fact. Disabled people get older. Older people get disabled. A seemingly obvious statement but when you consider that neither category are treated like, or even expected to, start falling into the other then it suddenly becomes an area for rich social consideration. In fact Chris stated that this issue of classification is becoming a major issue:

Finding a language to express longevity will be one of the biggest challenges of the next 50 years

Finally the audience were challenged to provide their vision of what aging in a city will look like in the future. The main theme was the reclaiming of city centres as spaces for the whole population, not just the young, the development of planned intergenerational living and the necessity of the rebuilding of social structures.

One gentleman referred to the return of “the family way of life”, something which Bernadette correctly picked up on and suggested a future where family might mean something else. What could these new families be? Could they involve intergenerational living as the modern form of living? At the moment the Dutch Humanitas Retirement Home is still fresh in the mind, and this was raised as a prospect by an audience member.

The final point raised by the audience was the one with which I started. Yes, the population is getting older, and yes people are living longer. This is great! Our population will have more life experience than ever, more people who’ve done their 10,00 hours, more experts and more wisdom. It’s a perception which needs changing, that should be our number one concern. Chris responded by describing the social view of the older generation as 19th Century. We expect people to become useless as they age, to become sick and to die. And sorry, that’s not the case anymore. He suggested that these views were held and encouraged by Politicians to further their agenda — at which point a very properly spoken older lady, who had for the duration been providing a very entertaining commentary to her friend in a hushed whisper, added “Yes, the patronising bastards!” .

If you keep society convinced older people are the problem then society will let other things slide.

In closing remarks much of the same was reiterated with two wonderful final images being drawn. The first highlighted that as the climate becomes more violent, and the older are made more vulnerable by society we are causing a collision course for future generations to deal with. The second suggested that we’re planning for strong, resilient cities at 25, 50 and 65 year horizons, we need to aid people today to plan for strong, resilient lives over the same horizons. That is easier said than done.


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John Sunart

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Facilitator and designer with intent, writing from Brighton, England. Previously a Flitcroft


Thoughts, case studies, and design tools built as I work to embed codesign and Service Design into agencies.