Design for Life

Design-led innovation can lighten the load of ageing 

The AAA invited some of the worlds' foremost design gurus to reimagine the relationship between our older selves and the built environment. Jeremy Myerson, Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design Royal College of Art, opened the session by pointing out that the majority of older people will not move into specialist housing or retirement villages. Most will be obliged to make do, adapting and retrofitting their existing properties where possible.

According to Jeremy, Design-led innovation can lighten the load of ageing. People facing greater longevity should be able to look forward to – “years full of life rather than life full of years”. While we should not ignore the physical, sensory and cognitive impairments that come to us all eventually. We must recognise that many older people are disabled by the design of the environment around them, rather than intrinsically disabled. Designers have a responsibility to reimagine settings, products, systems and services that will enhance the experience of later life.

Furthermore, Jeremy points out that public spaces in neighbourhoods and cities that lack social amenities such as seating, toilets and step-free access put up further barriers. The ‘New Old’ are tech savvy, mobile, often still in work, and simply won’t put up with clumsy plastic loo seats and excessively padded shoes any more. This is the rock ’n’ roll generation, they know all about design and they’re demanding more!”

Enabling people to thrive

Esther Greenhouse, Strategic Director, Cornell Institute for Healthy Futures, spoke about leveraging the power of the built environment to enable people to thrive. She outlined the theory of person-environment fit, encompassing environmental fit and environmental press, which tell us about the relationship between a person and their environment.

A good fit between a person and their environment will encourage independence. However, according to Esther, it is quite often the case that the environment presses the person to fit in.
In these cases the built environment actually pressed down on a person's ability to function and pushes them to an artificially lower level. Esther tells us part of the reason for the persistence of poor design is that we are creating products and places which are ideal for the average height male, between the ages of 20 of 40 and – by definition – we are designing everybody else out and expecting them to adapt. Hence we are subjecting them unnecessarily to environmental press.
Environmental Fit

From this perspective it is not good enough to wait until an older person experiences a health shock and then seek to retrofit a home because environmental presses have been at work throughout their lives - working silently behind the scenes to produce health problems. Esther claims that by using this perspective we can show all the stakeholders which are involved in creating built environments, whether it's designers, architects, engineers, government officials or agencies, investors, developers and so on, that they need to realise that they have a tremendous responsibility in the choices they make - but at the same time we have this incredible opportunity to build better environments.

Design and mobility are integral to our everyday experiences

Drawing on his extensive experience of transportation design and connectivity around the world, Paul Priestman, Chairman, of PriestmanGoode, began by saying standards can help companies that need guidance and push them into doing the right thing. And they also provide a benchmark for more forward thinking companies to aim to excel. Hence, any standard in this area should be seen as a minimum requirement – a common denominator that everyone can get behind.

According to Paul “The idea of designing for ageing demographics is a curious one. We all age. Hence designing for older people is designing for everyone. Design and mobility are integral to our everyday experiences. Everything around us, from the smallest items, like light switches and mobile phones, to buses, trains and airplanes, is designed. But design can often be exclusive, catering for the able-bodied, with considerably lower consideration for those who have accessibility issues or impairments, or conditions like dementia. I believe we need to shift our mindsets. It's time to move away from a reactionary attitude to existing problems, to a preventative outlook. That means we are designing with the aim of encouraging and facilitating a healthy and independent life for as long as possible

Designers have an important part to play in affecting behaviour. Design thinking and considered resolution allow us to offer products and solutions that help people stay fit for longer. They provide older demographics with independence as their physicality may be slowing down. Mobility is at the heart of extending our healthy lives, and there are various ways that we can rethink transport to improve individual experiences.

Walk the line

Paul spoke about a potentially disruptive solution for cities to improve pedestrian infrastructure called `Walk Lines'. The concept, which the PriestmanGoode studio developed (see image above), would provide dedicated walkways that create a speedier route for people wanting to get from A to B quickly. You could incentivise it by making it part of a public transport system (in London, for instance, it would be part of the bus, tube and overground network), and offer money back to passengers who choose walking instead of buses or tubes over short distances. This would have the added benefit of relieving pressure on other modes of public transport that are struggling to cope with increasing numbers of passengers.

Zero energy infrastructure

Walk Lines has many benefits. On the one hand, it keeps people mobile. It also makes walking a more pleasurable individual experience: there would be no need to stop at junctions or wait for traffic lights. The lanes would become like highways for pedestrians, with dedicated slow and fast walking lines. Dedicated infrastructure such as `walk stops' would be placed at regular intervals along the way. These would encompass a series of services, such as maps, coffee carts, shoe repairs etc.

Walk Lines would also improve air quality in city centres and improve quality of life for urban dwellers. You could also design these walkways as a zero energy infrastructure, by designing covered walkways with solar panelled roofs that would then power street lighting. Incorporating these elements would have both environmental and economic impact, by lowering energy and maintenance bills for councils. The health benefits for inhabitants would also decrease the pressure on national health services. Paul tells me his firm is currently negotiating with city authorities around the world and is hopeful of walking the first Walk Line within five years.

Paul concluded by saying the new ISO standard for multigenerational neighbourhoods is essential: “a standard for good living” that can improves the lives of all people, not just one particular (age) group. But to do this we need to involve all sections of society and work with the notion of inclusive design from the outset.

View video of these presentations here. You can read what other speakers had to say starting here. Tomorrow we will post part two of the design session.

Image: Walk Lines by PriestmanGoode.