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The New Old will be more techno-savvy, more conversant with robots, artificial intelligence and biotechnology than the current old.

Image: A scooter for life by PriestmanGoode, on exhibit at the Design Museum, London.

In this pop-up exhibition at the Design Museum in London, the New Old are rather glamorous. Wise and active, they live in smart-homes; clean uncluttered places.   They work for as long as they like, and are well connected to a wide and supportive social circle.  This is the vision curated by Professor Jeremy Myerson from the creations of designers given the brief of ‘improving life for older people.’ Myerson explains that the exhibition seeks to explore aging as a culture, not as a disease. This positive view informs deliberate attempts to re-brand aging, a bookcase full of volumes of life’s lessons evokes the benefits of a long life – a tangible form of the ‘longevity dividend’. The stigma that can be associated with old age is challenged by designers through the aesthetics they employ; the stereotypically drab and sensible style of old age is not seen here, instead the power suit on display is aerodynamic, sporty. The bathroom suite is luxuriously contoured. Old age can be sexy, literally, as a small display of sexual health posters reminds us that ‘age is not a condom’.

How will the New Old live with technology?

This model of successful aging is facilitated by intuitive, interactive technology, characterised by the way in which it blends in with the surroundings, and indeed the user. The ElliQ robot sits unobtrusively in a stage-set living room of the future. Looking more like a table lamp than a robot, it gently prompts the user to call family and friends, suggests things they might like to do. The exhibition shows the infrastructure that is designed to sit behind the devices of the smart-home, and to connect the monitoring devices needed to provide the ‘Care-Free’ Home System. Perhaps the most radical thought experiment in the exhibition is Spirit, an artificial intelligence system designed to help with social connections, it learns personal preferences and interacts with the user to alert them to potential positive social interactions. Designed to be incorporated into the body, a pill provides a biotech upgrade, and there is an implanted earpiece to prompt the user with conversational openers, a device in the intestine that will create a discreet fluttery feeling in the tummy to alert the user when there is someone suitable person to interact with nearby.     

The Present Old

Our own work in this area (through the SCALS project) is concerned with investigating the efforts of people who are currently using, adapting and creating technologies to assist independent or semi-independent living, including the group that we might dub the ‘Present Old’. The relatively low-tech everyday items on display were more recognisable as objects that might be used or adapted by the people engaged in our research, including the modest but ingenuous Sugru, a mouldable glue that solidifies to enhance grip, shown here on scissors, a crochet hook, and a tap. This kind of adaptive approach (or bricolage) that people adopt towards technology resonates with previous studies. The Present Old include those who might be aging less ‘successfully’, experiencing mobility problems, pain, fatigue as well as the social problems of loneliness and isolation that the designers here seek to overcome. Design solutions shown here range from the intergenerational scooter for life, to the Paro robot seal, a cuddly interactive pet, currently in use with people with dementia.

The new life course

As well as providing us with a ‘techno-utopian’ vision of the future, the design solutions found in the exhibition give us a glimpse into how the problems of old age are conceived; the attributes of age are problematic compared to the benefits of youth. It also prompts questions about how we perceive our evolving relationship with technology. One of the assumptions of this exhibition is that the New Old will be more techno-savvy, more conversant with robots, artificial intelligence and biotechnology than the current old.  However, as the retrospective contained within this exhibition (New Design for Old, a similar show from 30 years ago) reminds us, what’s new and daring now soon dates and is rendered obsolete. What, when we are the Current Old, will the New Old then be looking to for their future?

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