“The Elderly” = Doom, Gloom and Alarm. It’s Time to Press Reset

The percentage of the UK population aged over 65, is expected to jump from 17.8% in 2015 to nearly a quarter by 2045.

As the proportion of working-age adults to retirees increases, the demand for health and social care services expands. Consequently, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicts healthcare spending to grow from 7.3% to 8.3% of GDP with long term social care doubling from 1.1% to 2.2% by 2065.

And, if that’s not bad enough, according to new research by Which, 25% of older adults who need residential care will be unable to find a bed in a local home; in some areas within 5 years. Reporting on this The Times talks of “a catastrophe looming in adult social care” and says the government must act now.

In parallel, an article in The Mail claims that “Bed Blocking is causing 8,000 deaths every year”. We are told that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is planning to demand councils end bed blocking.

Call me cynical, but every article concerning “the elderly” seems to up the ante in terms of doom, gloom and alarm. Is it any wonder therefore that more than 25% of men and women aged over 65 in England are suffering from depression?

The Silver Tsunami

As we live longer, our aspirations should be expanding, necessitating new outlets for our skills and creativity in order to stay healthy, active and engaged members of society long into what is currently termed ‘retirement’.

Yet, here we are, two decades into the twenty-first century still referring to the ‘silver tsunami’, a doom-laden metaphor coined in the late-twentieth century to describe population ageing.

Maybe it’s time to press reset, to redefine the common perception of age to stages of life (study, work, retirement). This wisdom, termed ‘chronologism’ by sociologist Michael Young, is also rooted in history and has long passed its’ sell by date.

Adopting a more agile approach to the way we manage our lives in what author Klaus Schwab calls the ‘era of digital transformation’ could have a significant impact on our health and well-being across the life course. Moreover, ‘Agile Ageing’, as we call it, is a trillion-dollar business opportunity which cuts across health, social care and the built environment; and it is ripe for development.

Neighbourhoods of the Future

Earlier this year the Agile Ageing Alliance (AAA) published a white paper: Neighbourhoods of the Future – Better Homes for Older Adults – which concludes that a new breed of Cognitive Home could have a transformative effect on how we age. Facilitated by innovations in technology, business and service models, our homes could empower us to enjoy more meaningful, creative and independent lives well into old age; radically transforming our relationship with public services; creating new opportunities for learning and social engagement; leading to a reduction in the financial burden on State and citizens.

According to Clive Fenton CEO of our sponsor McCarthy & Stone, the UK’s largest builder of retirement housing: “New forms of technology and big data present possibilities for everyone, especially older adults. However their impact on those in later life is relatively unexplored.”

Mr Fenton believes: “It is vital for local authorities, house-builders, housing managers and their ecosystem of suppliers to embrace innovation. To use an appropriate technological term, we want this report to be ‘open source’- for the benefit of everyone-and ultimately to facilitate the creation of new homes that will support happier, healthier and hopefully, longer lives.”

Opportunities for innovation

Is there sufficient will and momentum to fuel what amounts to a long term care revolution? I am convinced there is. Over the past three years the Agile Ageing Alliance has attracted over 600 like-minded private, public and 3rd sector individuals and organisations, including governments, town, city and local authorities, developers, tech solution providers, other businesses and consumer groups. These multi-disciplinary cross-sector stakeholders share a collective desire for a more open and collaborative approach to development. They have told us they are ready to share capacity, work together to identify required standards and regulations, and co-create risk-sharing models that will enable new agile solutions to be adopted at scale.

The vision is to establish a dynamic market for affordable products and services designed to keep us safe, well, active and healthy; at home wherever possible.

Parallel activity in the built environment, drawing on emerging technologies such as the IoT and AI, has focused on urban living and how a myriad of factors such as air quality, energy, travel and other essential services might be delivered better. This so-called SMART city approach frequently cites health and care provision as key drivers.

In practical terms, Sarah Tromans, Senior Innovation Lead for Urban Living at Innovate UK tells me that: “Care for their ageing communities is eating into a huge portion of Council’s budget (over 50% in some cities). The interrelationship between health and care exemplifies the need for cross-silo, holistic approaches responding to the underlying concerns, rather than merely spending money to address with the resulting issues.”

Your personal AI doctor will keep an eye on you

The good news is theory and practice are slowly but surely aligning, and it won’t be too long before health tech and smart city innovations combine to revolutionise the way we manage our lives.

Talking to The Times, Toby Walsh, artificial intelligence expert and author of ‘Android Dreams: the Past, Present and Future of Artificial Intelligence’, says that in the not too distant future: “You will be getting medical advice from a doctor every day – and not because you’re a hypochondriac. That doctor will be your computer.

“Your smart watch will monitor many of your vital statistics: your pulse, your blood pressure, your sugar levels, your sleep and your exercise. It will watch for falls and call out for help if you faint. Your toilet will analyse your urine and stool. Your smartphone will take selfies of you to identify suspect melanomas, and monitor the health of your eyes.

“Your computer will also be on the lookout for early stages of dementia, it will record your voice, identifying changes that indicate a cold, Parkinson’s, or even a stroke. All of this will be monitored by an AI programme that follows you over your lifetime, maintaining a daily record of your health, diagnosing simple health problems and calling in the experts when there are larger problems to be explored.

And, by the time we get to 2050: “Many of us will have had our genes sequenced, so that we can identify our genetic risks. It will be cheap and easy to do. Your personal AI doctor will watch for the disease which you are prone. It will have your life history. It will know far more about medicine than any single doctor. It will stay on top of all the emerging medical literature – and it is likely to be a trillion-dollar industry.”

The opportunity to spearhead an exciting new market for tech has captured the imagination of the UK life sciences sector. The recently published Life Science Industrial Strategy report to Government claims that a combination of: “a strong science base, a vibrant commercial sector in health and a comprehensive, engaged, data-rich healthcare system, could provide an ideal environment for the UK to create globally successful new industries based on ‘grand challenges’, such as healthy ageing, diagnosis-led healthcare, and AI".

The report continues: “As we move to a setting where almost 30% of the population will be over the age of 65, a wide range of engineering, digital monitoring and technology-based solutions will be required to maintain mobility, allow people to stay at home, and provide much more effective out-of-hospital care. This is the basis for an entirely new industry that could effectively use the NHS and care systems as test beds for products.”

Smart business

Contrary to popular belief the majority of older adults are not living in poverty, blocking hospital beds and being a burden to society. According to Innovate UK, Britain’s over-50s spent £320 billion in 2015; 47% of all UK consumer spending. While in the States, Forbes tell us Baby boomers account for more than 51% of spending and have a total annual economic activity of roughly $7.6 trillion.
Nor are older adults technical luddites. Two-thirds of UK Baby Boomers say that technology is a vital part of their lives and over 50% believe that technology has made their lives easier. Our homes are getting smarter through basic innovations such as smart meters and smart speakers, but this is just the beginning. Digital technologies, digital infrastructure and data production are already revolutionising our lives in so many ways and it won’t be too long before they are integral to our homes, enriching our lives and the lives of our friends and loved ones; facilitating a greater degree of interaction and communication, personalised support and preventative care, and enabling health and human services to be delivered remotely.

In truth, there’s a whole new phase of life up for grabs which nobody has catered for. Now, with the convergence of potentially game changing assistive technologies made possible by the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Machine 2 Machine, Ambient Computing, super-fast broadband and wearables, we have a golden opportunity to rethink the outlook for ageing populations and provide a much needed boost to the Silver Economy.

So where are the barriers?

  • Lack of joined up strategic thinking,
  • Absence of a defined market and/or marketing and;
  • No attention grabbing breakthrough products or services

Social entrepreneurs,SMEs and researchers have been dabbling with ‘Active Assisted Living’ (AAL) or ‘Ambient Assisted Living’ as it used to be known, for better part of a decade, thanks primarily to generous funding from the European Union, which was quick to spot the socioeconomic potential and sought to give European businesses, especially SMEs, a head start.

These initiatives have substantially increased our knowledge, but have progressed in isolation on a technology push perspective, limiting acceptability and real life use, which is a significant hamper for innovation and commercialisation at scale.

A 21st Century Cooperative

The big question is who will own our homes and of course the data we generate? Privacy issues aside, for entrepreneurs and startups this is a fantastic business opportunity. But, to challenge the status quo I believe we need to rethink the development model. Why not involve public funders, SMEs, academic researchers and investors in a more equitable partnership with corporates, the stakeholders best qualified to create sustainable brands?

By investing in a cooperative for the 21st Century, in a spirit of open innovation and collaboration, corporate mentors will be able to tap into a fresh stream of passionate, innovative and potentially disruptive talent, while the SME gains access to a global ecosystem, assets and expertise.

This could be an important step change because the way we currently fund innovation in Europe makes it extremely difficult for SMEs to scale. By way of example, grant funded’ Innovate UK and Horizon 2020 competitions are brilliant at spotting and nurturing the most promising early stage projects, but the founders are generally ill equipped to translate innovative product or services, into commercially viable businesses.

We should be working towards a new ecosystem – with a public service remit - to support the most promising businesses which have outgrown early-stage grant funding. They may lack the expertise, knowledge and networks to progress; providing the support and resources necessary to flourish without losing sight of who they are and what they do, could be a game changer.

If we don’t act, business as usual will see the more aggressive US tech giants establishing proprietary platforms and hoovering up promising incumbents, which will make it extremely difficult for European businesses to prosper thereafter. The land grab has started with the likes of Amazon, Google and Apple sizing up healthcare and the connected home, with voice activated products like Amazon Echo and Google Home making the early running.

We have been warned.

Get Involved

The AAA has joined forces with Nesta, to stage a stakeholder’s workshop hosted by our friends NatWest at their London HQ, October 16th.

The objective is to explore opportunities pertaining to a Neighbourhoods of the Future Open Innovation Challenge (facilitated by Microsoft) and a follow-up to Nesta’s multi-million pound Longitude Prize. This event will aim to break down the challenges in developing and delivering the benefits of a ‘Cognitive Home’ by identifying specific barriers and opportunities where innovation and collaboration can make a difference in terms of society and business.