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Sign of the Times

It was encouraging to see the long awaited UK housing white paper acknowledging that offering older people a better choice of accommodation can help them to live independently for longer and reduce costs to the social care and health systems.

That said, the white paper was less specific in terms of how the government intends to inject life into a pretty static market, beyond drawing on the expertise of a wide range of stakeholders. Which, as regular readers will know, is precisely what the Agile Ageing Alliance has been doing with Utrecht University to inform development of the European Commission's Reference Framework for Age-friendly Housing.

You will be able to learn more about this in a couple of weeks when we publish our Neighbourhoods of the Future report, in partnership with the UK's leading retirement housebuilder McCarthy & Stone, looking at better homes for older adults.

The good news is the private sector seems to be waking up to the opportunity. According to Michael MacBrien Director General of the European Property Federation whose members own and manage commercial and residential property assets worth €1.5 trillion:

"A significant number of EPF's property investment company members are either entering the health care real estate market or expanding their existing operations and asset base. In fact, they are going through the kind of business plan sea change you only normally see in times of radical change such as war. The downside is that these investors are so busy meeting basic demand that they may be missing out on other, 'hidden' opportunities."

To address this disconnect we are going to need new business models involving a more collaborative approach and a spirit of open innovation. We will also require strong input from pioneering social and technological entrepreneurs, who will complement the role of local and central government, not for profit and housing organisations, private developers and 'end users', who for the most part are healthy baby boomers, with healthy bank balances and an even healthier appetite for consumption.

Which brings me to the life affirming NEW OLD exhibition at London's majestic new Design Museum.

Years Full of Life

I asked the exhibition curator Jeremy Myerson, director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art, what he was trying to say with the exhibition. "The NEW OLD project seeks to give pause for thought with a simple message: design-led innovation can lighten the load of ageing. Through this approach, people facing greater longevity can enjoy fuller, healthier, more rewarding lives in the future - 'years full of life rather than life full of years'".

Jeremy stresses that we should not ignore the medical realities of ageing - the physical, sensory and cognitive impairments that come to us all eventually. We must however recognise that many older people are disabled by the design of the environment around them, rather than intrinsically disabled. Designers have a responsibility to use all the advances in practice and technology available to them to reimagine products, settings, systems and services that will enhance the experience of later life.

He continues; "Our way of thinking about older adults has shifted radically. The change is not just in terms of what's possible technologically, but how we now think about ageing. People are staying active in society and the workplace for much longer, and it's about time our products and services caught up.

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 about design and they're demanding more."

From robotic clothing to driverless cars, the Design Museum exhibition and the accompanying catalogue examines how innovation and design can reimagine how we live the later stages of our lives. If you have the chance, I would encourage you to visit, it's a great experience and entry is free. Alternatively, the catalogue is available from the Design Museum shop online.

NEW OLD included a series of talks with world renowned designers discussing their approach to designing for older adults. Each of the designers offered a fresh perspective, and I was particularly inspired by what Yves Béhar had to say.

Described by Forbes as the most influential industrial designer in the world, Yves is the founder of fuseproject, an award-winning industrial design and brand development firm. Among many other prestigious commitments he is also Chief Creative Officer of the wearable technology company Jawbone, and the chief industrial designer of One Laptop per Child.

According to Yves "Tech is our raw future, which has to be defined and refined through design". He also said that "Good design removes complexity from life". And, last but certainly not least, in terms of Neighbourhoods of the Future: "Build it, and they will come!"

Ian Spero

Keep up to date with Ian and AAA via Twitter: @agileageing / @ianspero