Scientific development has enabled human beings to live longer. This is the challenge that technological innovation is facing.
Science has given us the gift of years. Vaccines, antibiotics, and antivirals are some of the many advancements of medicine that have curbed many diseases which in the past posed a direct threat to the life of a human being.
We now have the gift of aging, and we age over decades. Life expectancy doubled over 200 years and it continues to increase year after year. The consequences of this trend transcend the purely individual scope. Even the age at which we call ourselves old has changed. Not only we live longer, our quality of life is better, we are healthier and more active.
Live longer, consume more
Against the backdrop of our socio-economic circumstances, this translates into longer work lives and postponed retirements, and a need for medical care and treatments for longer. This also means there is a new group of consumers in need of products and services adapted to their needs.
The Oxford Economics analysis about the “longevity economy” points out that only in the United States, the market spending of the over-50 population amounts to $7.1 trillion. It is the so-called silver economy, which amounts to $15 trillion around the globe.
These data will continue to grow in parallel with the growth of the over 60 population. The projections suggest that by 2050, there will be 2.1 billion people over that age, which is an indication of the large consumer market they will generate.
Lori Bitter, an expert with the Bankinter Innovation Foundation and member of the Future Trends Forum about Longevity, centers her research on this new group of consumers, their decision-making process and the business opportunities for companies that incorporate them as target audience. Ms. Bitter believes the industry best positioned to harness this demographic development is healthcare, as it is “inherently linked to how long people live”. But it is not the only one.
For Stephen Johnston, another FIBK expert and CEO of Aging 2.0, a network of innovation professionals centered around older people, there are other equally important sectors. From mobility and the ability to move to social engagement, as well as the care industry and the family care perspective. There is a wealth of opportunities that could become the starting point to tackle the main challenges of ageing.
Robotics and Longevity
Technology is an ingredient of basically any innovation-driven initiative, and particularly so when the products and services are targeting individuals who may need help in their daily tasks.
According to Dor Skuler, CEO of Intuition Robotics and Bankinter Innovation Foundation expert, technology “can and must play a key role”. However, Skuler points out that adapting older people to technological solutions isn’t always a smooth, affordable process for them. We are at a moment when companies, particularly technological companies, must adjust their approach to harness the potential of this population as consumer group. Success will depend, in good measure, on putting them at the center of the user experience, and a user-friendly rather than an obstacle-race type of design.
As 90% of older people would rather age at home than go to a nursing home or assisted living facility, the efforts must focus on empowering the elderly with technology so that they can enjoy their autonomy and independence.
This is a premise found in most successful innovation projects of late.
Intuition Robotics is another case on how to improve older people’s autonomy with high technology. ElliQ is a social worker, a hybrid between robotics and artificial intelligence that helps users connect with their families easily and enjoy digital contents—minus the access barriers. Besides, it suggests physical exercise and reminds them of the pills they need to take, among other useful functions for this audience.
Health in old age
Some 20% of Extremadura locals are 65 or older, and the low population density adds a layer of difficulty when providing services, unless new technologies are used. “The project addresses the problem of dehydration, which is very significant, particularly for people with mild or moderate cognitive impairment, as it can progress to hospital admissions that are costly for the individual and for society”, explains Jonathan Gomez, head of Scientific Coordination at Fundesalud. Last year, his team tested a smart cup that produces light and sound signals as a reminder to users to take a sip. The cup monitors intake data over the phone and sends alerts to the doctor or caregiver when the intake is detected as incorrect. “Users, doctors and their families found the device helpful”, says Gomez of Aquatime, which is now being launched to the market together with a Norwegian company. In September, Fundesalud will extend the sample to a study in a care facility for people with mild or moderate dementia.
Gomez makes the point that the technology enables “greater efficiency and speed and it prevents potentially worse problems”.
Health, mobility, care, or food are but a few of the areas where we see greater innovative activity targeting older age, but there are myriads of possibilities. Some require adapting this audience to the existing products and services, others require creating new initiatives that will maintain and improve their quality of life.