Google: Innovation and Ageing

Google: Innovation and Ageing

By Deborah Gale

The Google offices on Bonhlll Street in London were thrumming in the early evening on the 22nd of November where Stephen Johnston, co–founder of Aging2.0, was holding their second London event.



Aging2.0 is a fledgling proposition with great potential viability and their timing may not be better. Their self–proclaimed mission is to build a global innovation network and “accelerate innovation for the 50+ market to improve the lives of older adults around the world”. It seems the unprecedented and unstoppable advance of global ageing in the 21st Century is finally starting to gain broader acknowledgment.   A UN endorsed report, was released on 1st October 2012, which comprehensively documents global population ageing. The release date was cleverly timed to coincide with the International Day of Older Persons. It would seem that the penny may be dropping. Even Google must be listening. As normal as breathing, ageing is starting to move up the agenda.

While such legitimate acknowledgement is fundamental, the actual acceptance of ageing as a socially acceptable period in the life course continues to lag. Part of the solution to this denial will be a naturally occurring evolution given the sheer number involved. Not only have there never been so many people growing old at the same time, they are also predicted to extend longevity expectations. Some experts anticipate the bonus decades for the boomers could span an additional thirty years; in essence, another adult lifetime.

Aging2.0 is seeking to preempt this age wave, by creating a marketing platform for innovation through connecting all the necessary stakeholders.   Their network aspires to be “a cross–disciplinary, inter–generational group of entrepreneurs, investors, researchers, technologists, designers, and others who share our common values of innovation, collaboration and respect for all ages”. They assert that the combination of these partners will act as a catalyst to spur innovation in a space that is sorely lacking at present.

There is no dispute that a void in the market exists for modified solutions. Addressing the myriad of changes in the customary activities of daily living that occur and accelerate as we age is demanded and the scope is tremendous. In trying to tackle the inevitable, Ageing2.0 is building a platform for innovation that has never existed before. Through events like this one at the Google offices in London, they are in the process of rallying support. Combining content and community they are gathering momentum by identifying where innovation is taking place currently and supporting those players, operating in large and small companies, across the world.


Stephen opened with a review of Aging2.0’s ethos and his view on the innovation paradox, inherent to the 50+ population. What, he asked, is stopping the innovation?

His fundamental argument is that the goal posts on ageing have moved. The first rev of ageing is undergoing a radical change and its replacement is unavoidable. The anachronistic societal constructs surrounding ageing have relentlessly distanced the actual process of ageing from coexisting with real life over time. Ageing has erroneously been viewed as a homogeneous challenge, typified by ever increasing demands in terms of health care expectations. Given its ascribed and remote status from the rest of life, design issues were also narrowly defined and rigidly mission driven. There was no attention paid to vastly differing trajectories on the ageing spectrum or the variation in individual responses to ageing idiosyncrasies. Therefore, design decisions were made unilaterally and these would hopefully suffice until the generalized, marginalized population of ageing persons arrived at their unsavory endpoint.  Additionally, given increasing levels of presumed infirmity, the requirements for institutional care solutions further distanced older persons from the greater community. This has resulted in a contemporary situation where certain aspects of later life have become the exclusive purview of government organizations or non–profits.  This framework is untenable going forward.

Aging2.0 is the antithesis of its precursor. It is bold, broad and comprehensive in its vision. Reversing the view of ageing as a disagreeable challenge means altering the narrative to identify the opportunities therein. Next, because ageing is not an equal or identical process, the narrow notion of an ageing persons health care needs requires expansion to include health concerns alongside wellness and lifestyle choices. This requires a consideration of health across the life course which is no longer restricted to diminishment issues (physical, emotional or mental capacities) traditionally construed as exclusive to later life. Following on, the design process, across the board, needs a rethink. Design must be reengineered to include an appreciation that ageing begins at birth and is a continuous adaptive progression. This will allow for form to follow function at every age and between life stages/ transitions in a coherent fashion.

While the fact remains that no one gets out of this life alive, the way we all get there is unique. This opens up new pathways to explore in terms of business driven solutions with products and services being designed to improve our choices in terms of how we will age in the 21st C. This, is turn, opens up the ageing space to the for–profit sector and encourages entrepreneurship in the rank and file. This is particularly true for the able, retired including those beginning to contemplate retirement as well as those seeking productive fulfillment via encore careers. While Aging2.0 paints a rosy picture this is unfortunately not in keeping with the pace of present innovation. Many barriers to innovation are quite elementary with respect to a fundamental lack of older consumer participation and consideration of their insights. This has resulted in a lack of trust by older people. Designing for this “new age” then, assumes a mindset shift and we are nowhere close.



Stephen first  called up Halima Khan, Director of the Public Services Lab at NESTA, the UK’s leading innovation foundation. Her group is tasked with the design and delivery of programmes that address social challenges. With a new cash infusion of £70M, Halima announced an allocation of some portion of this funding to the ageing imperative. Her group plans to review the social challenges of ageing, not only in terms of product, service and marketing innovations but crucially with respect to the current political and cultural climate that is hindering positive change.

Dick Stroud, founder and MD of 20plus30, followed. This author’s marketing consultancy works exclusively on understanding and targeting the older population. His latest book, The 50+Market, looks at how ageing impacts body, mind and senses and how the customer journey changes across the life course. His approach addresses the oft perceived as depressing physiological realities of ageing while presenting a strong business case for why this untapped market creates exciting, creative and profitable business opportunities.

Next, Farnaz Nickpour, Brunel University lecturer and fellow at the Human Centered Design Institute led a spirited discussion of the challenges of designing for ageing. She highlighted the overlapping instincts of the artist, designer and engineer in this process. Linking the subjective self–expression of the artist with the user orientation of a designer and the task orientation of an engineer is complicated as well as demanding a complex interaction between bodies and society. She stressed that designing for ageing requires a new language where the ultimate goal is a replication of normalcy and an enhancement of capability. There was general agreement that this was no small feat.

The last speaker before the break was Rama Gheerao, Deputy Director of the Helen Hamlyn Center for Design. His eloquent explanation of how ageing and ability exist on a spectrum underscored the need to radically rethink ageing and move design from the more medical model to a social care model. Enabling social connections and personal independence through better design was possible only if those responsible remembered that “desire does not fade away with age” so it is important that they design for their future, not their present selves. Gheerao told the audience that the prototypical designer is a 38 year old white male. This highlights the immediate necessity for increased input from older consumers in the design process.



Following a pause for networking, a second panel pitched their start–up’s. Phillipa Aldrich, founder of the Future Perfect Company showcased the entries of two participants from the University of Brighton’s “Designing for the Future Competition”. One was a design to lessen the embarrassment of using asthma inhalers in public and the other was a “Music Memory Box” for dementia sufferers. My immediate reaction was that I didn’t expect that older people would be embarrassed by their inhalers in the same way as younger users might be. However, because this could be perceived as an age neutral product, its inclusion was legitimized. With the memory box, I believe there could be niche interest as a customized product but not sure that it possesses mass market potential. 

The next pitch did appeal. Odeis the brainchild of Lizzie Ostrom and Ben Davies. Ode is described as “a wellbeing product that creates the link between the power of scent and its effect on our relationship with food”. Given that older people sometimes exhibit tendencies for limited appetites, interest in food can be stimulated by the introduction of smells from favorite foods into the immediate environment. My sense, pun intended, was that this could be a very supportive product, designed to make people smile.

Finally, Matthew Harrison the co–founder of Collaborative Caring and in conjunction with five designers and developers has created an online tool for managing and monitoring the involvement, concerns and experiences of families when dealing with caring duties for relatives with dementia. I believe this product could fill a great need. Having recently had personal experience with a relative recovering from a stroke and responsible for trying to coordinate and communicate with multiple family members across counties, countries and even continents, I would have greatly enjoyed having had Grouple at my disposal. This product also manages to address the digital exclusion issue because assuming access and level of proficiency, it is possible for the ailing family member to also use this supportive online tool.


The opportunity to design for ageing populations has never been greater and the good news, in terms of new business prospects is that it is also growing rapidly. While the people who were in attendance see this clearly, this is not yet embraced as a mainstream issue. Moving ageing from 1.0 to 2.0 will require that innovation comes from multiple directions.

The success of Aging2.0 is dependent upon finding, connecting and exploiting the talents of the disparate change makers identified in the intro. Inspiring this level of collaboration will take time and won’t be easy.

A tremendous amount of good will and noise exists in the ageing space. This choice overload needs streamlining. To that end, Stephen Johnston and his co–founder Katy Fike are attempting to position themselves at the apex of the innovation paradox. They are parsing through the inputs from scores of ageing experts in order to facilitate growth opportunities within the burgeoning 50+ market. They held their first Aging2.0/Ask An Expert seminar at the mHealth Summit in Washington DC earlier this month, offering elderpreneurs free 30 minute consultations with innovation and ageing experts. Development of business partnerships will require funding and there is a general acknowledgment of the relative scarcity of sources for this sector. Crucially, the need for thoughtfully designed products and services that work can only increase as the baby boomers continue to age.






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