Design and care: Moving beyond utility towards beauty

Regular readers will be aware of my interest in the £4 million Long Term Care Revolution. LTCR aims to give UK businesses a head start in a global race to transform long term care from an “end of life” institutional model, widely regarded as unfit for purpose, to a dynamic market that helps facilitate the construction of flexible, personalised platforms that empower us to live as we choose, regardless of age.

Well, the Revolution is gathering momentum and I am pleased to report that creative thinking is very much to the fore. I have written in these pages about participating in a LTCR sandpit. Underwritten by Innovate UK, this intensive innovation workshop gave rise to some far out new design concepts such as ‘RITA’ a Responsive InTeractive Advocate. If you follow this link you can meet the lovely RITA, a humanised avatar, could she represent a future model of personalised care?

Avatars and robotics were also flavour of the day at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff where I chaired the first of a series of LTCR roadshows and workshops being staged in London, Edinburgh and Belfast. We had some excellent speakers, including Daisy Coles Director of Wellbeing and Empowerment at the Welsh Commission for Older People, who can count on the force of law backing an ambitious commitment to improve the quality of life for ageing Welsh citizens. Another expert, Sebastian Conran, Designer in Residence at Sheffield University, spoke passionately about what he calls the “uncanny valley” where robots are perceived to be too lifelike. Sebastian also waxed lyrically about the use of robotics to extend people’s independence by “transforming science, technology and engineering into experience, lifestyle and culture.

Innovation and independent living, the need for risk and people centric design, were prominent themes at the EU Summit on Innovation in Active and Healthy Ageing in Brussels. Where, in addition to presenting LTCR with Innovate UK’s Über-radical Jackie Marshall-Balloch, the leading force behind the Revolution; I was involved in planning a session looking at new approaches to design in long term care, chaired by Mat Hunter Chief Design Officer at the UK’s Design Council, pictured above.

I asked Mat to share his experience…


What was most interesting was that the room was packed, every chair filled, every bit of floor used by someone sitting or standing, every windowsill with a brave soul perching on it. This is a marked change from my experiences of the previous three years of similar events where the only seats filled were usually filled with other designers.

Normally when I say that I am a designer interested in the world of adult social care, I get bemused looks. Design is thought of as selfish and superficial; care is thought of as a person to person activity that one cannot and should not design. Neither thought is true and the worlds of public health and private consumerism could learn a lot from each other.

With the over 85s the fastest growing demographic in the UK, many experts agree that an already creaking health and care system will reach full-blown crisis during the next parliament. This is a system that is already stripped so far back to the bone that private care companies are pulling back from loss-making government contracts, care workers are thoroughly demoralised because of low pay and poor career prospects and the media is full of abuse of the frail elderly that deserve better.

This UK picture is similar in the wider EU.

The good news is that some realise this crisis represents an opportunity. If necessity is the mother of invention then we ought to be encouraging some pretty wild ideas at this point – and there are definitely pockets of wild ideas out there. Here are three of my favourites:

1. Goodgym was started by Ivo Gormley, a designer, who devised a very different type of running club. The runner is assigned a coach (let’s call her ‘Anne’) and especially on those cold and dark winters’ evenings, Anne is there to encourage the runner up off the sofa and out of the house. The twist in the tale is that Anne is in fact someone who finds it hard to get out of her own house and therefore can get a bit lonely – and her role as coach is to provide the cup of tea or whatever when the runner arrives. Different needs aligned to create mutual benefit – and a proposition that feels more attractive for both sides than a typical ‘befriending service’. It’s not that befriending services are bad, it’s just that not everyone thinks it’s for them.

2. Ode was founded by an industrial designer and a fragrance expert, and uses high quality food fragrances to stimulate appetite and combat malnutrition for frail older adults that so often lose interest in food. A simple and elegant device, it wafts out the smells of bakewell tart, chicken curry, orange juice and others (for some reason sweet food smells work better than savory) and has been proven both to increase the amount of food that is eaten, but also the range of foods, so helping maintain as much of a balanced diet as possible. It’s these sorts of productivity aids that help carers cope with the challenging and sometimes relentless demands.

3. Casserole is an Uber-style meals on wheels. It’s a food sharing scheme where neighbours cook for neighbours. Now running in Australia as well as the UK, not only does this make up for the fact that meals on wheel funding has been cut by up to 25% in recent years, so leaving many people without a hot meal once a day, but it increases social contact too, so reducing isolation and loneliness. It’s hard to overcome the challenges that all peer-peer services face, of managing security and safety, but it has captured the imagination of ‘cooks’ (aka volunteers), ‘diners’ (aka recipients) and commissioners of local authority adult social services that normally pay for these things.

What’s important in all of these examples is not just creativity and imagination – the optimism with which to see all these challenges as opportunities – but the humanity to see that they must all move beyond utility towards beauty. Each solution is beautifully simple, but also life affirming – they all bring joy, be that of good food or human company.

Equally important is the recognition that effective innovation requires an effective business model. Someone has to want your innovation, buy it and then implement it. Each of the good ideas above continues to evolve its business model in order to grow, often blending private and public revenue streams.

The inconvenient truth is that none of the ideas above came from the existing health and care system. As we all know, it’s very hard for transformative ideas to come from existing institutions. So while this is ostensibly a public sector problem, it is in fact an opportunity for all – for the voluntary sector to show the power of resilient communities, for the private sector to show its powers of innovation and for the public sector to help unlock this growing market, such as via personal care budgets, or at least get out of the way a bit more.

I’ve been delighted to hear EU Commission leaders talk engagingly about all of the above at the Healthy Ageing Summit – about moving beyond utility to joy and about disruptive business models – and most have suggested that the power of the health consumer, facilitated by digital technology, is the force most likely to change things. It’s why design is now being taken seriously in health and care innovation, because design shapes things so that they really work for people who need health and care support, not just for those that provide such services.


If you’d like to get engaged with Innovate UK’s £4 million SBRI Long Term Care Revolution National Challenge click here to register your interest in attending events in London and Edinburgh where you’ll have the opportunity to engage with the likes of Mat Hunter, Sebastian Conran together with many other far sighted experts and thought leaders.

And don’t forget to follow CSL on Twitter, where we shine a regular spotlight on innovative, digitally enabled creative developments in healthcare.

Photo provided by Mat Hunter and used with permission