Assistive Technology Think Tank

An irony of the connected home is that many devices are unable to talk to each other.

Cross-party think tank Policy Connect (PC) has been exploring the potential of smart technologies to transform social care and promote independent living among disabled and older people. Here, we review what was said when AAA and PC joined forces to ask insightful experts to consider how the new ISO standard could impact assistive technologies.

Clive Gilbert, Policy Manager for Assistive Technology, Policy Connect, began by noting that multigenerational neighbourhoods are of particular interest to the All Party Parliamentary Group on assistive technologies which he coordinates. Clive's passion for improving public services is partly motivated by the fact that he relies on them more heavily than most people. Clive was born with the physical disability cerebral palsy. As he says "From the day I was born, I have had extensive contact with education, health and social care services, and have experienced the best and worst they have to offer.

One of the best things about my job is that I am always learning and expanding the body of knowledge and insights comprised of lived experience and the fruits of years of study and collaboration with professional organisations. My mission is to help people and organisations make better sense of the challenges they face - whether internal or external - by providing access to the knowledge and skills that will allow them to find solutions.

With specific regard to the APPG, we are interested in how the emergence of smart home technologies can provide new ways for older and disabled people to take control over their lives." Clive identified key issues that any ISO standard should address:

  • Lack of inclusive design in products and services, as this has held up technology adoption among older and disabled people.
  • Compatibility between technologies. Clive noted that one of the ironies of the connected home is that many devices are unable to talk to each other. 

Moreover, so-called "smart systems" that are designed to lock users into using a particular narrow range of products, limit choice for all consumers, but can be particularly problematic for people who rely on specialist assistive technologies. Here the technology has to be able to adapt so it can be personalised around each individual's lifestyle and interoperability is vital as an individual's preferences may change over time. Clive ended his talk with a call for 3 key challenges. We must work together to convince: 

  • Technology companies to adopt inclusive design;
  • Social care delivery agencies to engage with new technologies;
  • House builders that 21st century homes must keep up with 21st century technology, if they are to meet the needs and aspirations of an ageing and increasingly disabled population. 

One in five people in the UK is living with a disability 

Victoria Leesam, Senior Investment Specialist at Homes England, said housing must be more inclusive, not just for older people, but for all generations. According to Homes England research, one in five people in the UK is living with a disability, and 84% of disabilities are acquired.  

Victoria wants to ensure that all housing is connected with fibre as well as copper wire, so that residents can select the most appropriate digital tools and smart technology which meets their individual needs. Victoria concluded by pointing out that we should be building on current best practice such as the Building for Life 12 Standard, which outlines good practice for design and connectivity. Not just in the house, but how do you get from the house to the shops or the countryside? 

Cynthia Bullock, Deputy Director, ISCF Ageing Society Challenge, began by outlining the UK government's ageing society grand challenge to ensure that people can enjoy at least five extra healthy independent years of life by 2035, while narrowing the gap between the experiences of the richest and poorest. Cynthia noted that there is a key role that housing and communities can play in helping to achieve this challenge. Yet, despite the fact that the majority of homes that will exist in 2050 have already been built, improving and adapting existing homes is a relatively neglected and under invested market. As such, adaptations and improvements of existing homes would make a major contribution to healthy ageing and designing those homes so that they are inclusive across the life course would mean that older and younger people are able to remain in multigenerational communities. 

Designing adaptive products for a mainstream market 

Cynthia says we must think about designing and packaging, or repackaging, adaptive products for a mainstream market that enable activities of daily living, and marketing and branding these in age-friendly ways. But we also need to look beyond housing to design walkable streets and neighbourhoods with local green or blue spaces. Cynthia sees the ISO standard as an opportunity to improve the knowledge of what already exists. In conclusion, Cynthia said, the question of what constitutes age-friendly homes or neighbourhoods cannot be addressed through the lens of a single sector or discipline. To deliver a successful standard will require cooperation across many sectors. (Read more from Cynthia here

Simon Bayliss, Managing Partner, HTA Design LLP, gave a fascinating insight into what a successful multigenerational neighbourhood looks like, using the example of Hallam housing on the outskirts of Bristol. This was delivered with the innovation and research of the private sector, underpinned by the public sector setting the standards. Here they designed everything from good first principles, to ensure that the spaces and environments that were created would fit the lifestyle of the people who would live there. Hence, the spaces inside the homes is not only flexible and adaptable, but are exceptionally bright which has been shown to improve health and well-being. 

Outdoor spaces, driving community engagement

The homes have generous gardens which encourages people to sit outside, which in turn drives community engagement. The neighbourhood also included ‘biophilic landscapes’, green spaces, which were an important aspect in connecting people more closely with their landscape. There are even community greenhouses in the centre of the estate. All of this (and this summary does not do the talk justice so please check out the slides and the video link below) show that we need to understand building to a high standard, making sure that there are specifications to suit everybody with spacious, adaptable mobile spaces and shared communal facilities that can bring communities together.

Meryl Davies, CEO, Reengage, gave an impassioned talk about the value that many older adults place on technology. However, she was also very clear on the need to better understand the diversity of the older population. According to Meryl, as a society we have marginalised older people and as a consequence we lack ways to differentiate sufficiently between different groups of older people. This is particularly important when we are discussing technology and older adults. 

Older people are seen as passive recipients of technology 

Meryl says that we need to get ‘under the skin’ of how we think about older people and technology. All too often older people are seen as passive recipients of technology. Hence we need a greater understanding of the use of technology by older people and to think how we can co-create safe and secure solutions which are truly enabling. 

Regulation and law must keep pace with the rapidity of technological change

Karen Holden, Founding Partner, Director, A City Law Firm, asked how regulation and law can keep pace with the rapidity of technological change. She made a provocative proposal that, rather than waiting for the law to catch-up with technology, it would be better if the technology companies, who are giving us all these fantastic opportunities, work with regulators to make it clear what they are planning and what protections are needed. In terms of ethics, Karen wants to know whose ethics would be used to define any new ISO standard. Here there was a strong call to ensure that we get a truly global input and do not simply impose UK or Western standards on to developments in other parts of the world. 

Matt McCann, CEO and Founder, Access Earth, gave an in-depth insight into a new pan European platform on healthier ageing and community care that is being developed to provide accessibility data in relation to the built environment.

Matt's speaks with first hand knowledge. His company Access Earth is the world’s first business and travel review site for those living with disabilities. Like Clive, Matt has Cerebral Palsy and has struggled with accessibility challenges his entire life. But, it wasn’t until 2012, when as a college student he booked a room at a hotel in London that marketed themselves as accessible only to discover upon arrival that it was not, that he decided to intervene. Since then, Matt has made it his mission to minimise the risk of anyone having to go through such an ordeal.

Drawing attention to the magnitude of the challenge, Matt said that approximately 1 billion people around the world have some form of access needs and, if you include family, friends, work colleagues, etc., half the world’s population need accessibility information.

Half the world’s population need accessibility information

Access Earth, which is available through apps and websites, allows people to share and find information about accessibility at amenities in their area, e.g. a hotel, restaurants, coffee shops, etc.

From this we can look at how businesses can make themselves more accessible. Accessibility data help make the built environment more accessible for everyone. For example, with the advent of more pedestrianised city centres local authorities are still going to need accessible parking bays. Hence, it makes it even more important that towns and cities are designed to be more inclusive. Matt ended by saying that we are facing a multigenerational challenge, he hopes the ISO standard could be extended to the wider built environment to ensure that everyone has access to the things they need. 

Fostering a culture of inclusivity

Sam Mauger, Chief Executive, University of the Third Age U3A, threw down the challenge to all of us to think about how we define, represent and speak about people as they age. She argued that we need to begin with the person themselves and not the number of years lived. Drawing on previous U3A research on ‘Learning, not lonely’, Sam makes the case that we need to foster a culture of inclusivity which sees the person, not their age. Or how many qualifications they had, what they did for a living,  did they have a partner etc etc. As Sam says, lets focus on how people define themselves, when we are considering any standards. (You can read more from Sam here).

Watch these presentations in full at www.agileageing.org. Tomorrow we will continue publishing editorial summaries and videos from the AAA ISO Leaders Forum.

Image by Jakub Rozanski for AAA.