Unveiling the potential of design for age-friendly environments – final project event

DAA project logoOn April 24-25 2014, Barcelona hosted the Final event of DAA – Design-led Innovation for Active Ageing, an Interreg IVC project that brought together 8 cities determined to define sustainable solutions for demographic change and contribute to social innovation through service design.

Dan Formosa, cofounder of Smart Design (an innovation consultancy firm) gave an introductory speech on “how design can change the world”. He stressed the designers don’t aim at “average” persons when thinking about products and services, on the contrary they “need to understand people at the edges”: indeed, who could the “average person” be? Such a person does not exist.

This concept goes hand in hand with AGE perspective on older persons: in all its projects, AGE Platform underlines that older people are not a heterogeneous group, and each person has her/his own feelings and perceptions about ageing and about the challenges it implies. When discussing with developers and designers, AGE fosters the need for an holistic approach to tackle the challenges deriving from the demographic change, while proposing to talk and discuss directly with the final users of products and services, in order to tailor them to their needs, as designing for an “average” older person does not mean much. Indeed, who is old?

Mr. Formosa moreover stressed the importance of “asking the right question”, another concept dear to AGE. As an example, it is not uncommon to be addressed the question “how to live longer at home?”. But is this the right question? Wouldn’t it be better to rather ask “how to live healthy and well at home?” Is it really a matter of living longer, or to ensure the quality of life at home as long as possible?

The conference allowed the participants to brainstorm and interact around design thinking for Ambient Assisted Living; isolation among seniors; housing issues; care and caregivers. Split in 10 groups, and despite the divergent focuses of their discussion tables, attendees raised common issues: all groups stated the importance of placing the user at the center, to better inform and make aware all stakeholders about concerns and opportunities, to establish confidence and trust to allow the exchange of experiences and knowledge, and last but not least to open up to their transfer, especially through intergenerational exchanges.

At the core of the DAA project, it is the work of eight European cities. Here it is an overview, presented in the light of AGE campaign for age-friendly environments. Each city highlighted what their challenges have been in delivering the services they targeted and suggested their way to cope with them.

City Experiences


Design-led solutions


Social inclusion of seniors in urban neighbourhood

How to motivate people to adhere to an initiative?

Co-design: involve the users in the designing experience


Alzheimer: using service design to improve lives.

How to allow self-sustainable care for seniors suffering from dementia?

Balancing needs through engaging with different stakeholders


Creating acceptance of Assistive Technology (AT).

How to transfer innovation to the market? How to develop user environment accepting innovation?

Raising awareness on Assistive Technologies (AT) solutions to improve confidence and acceptance.


New service design: influencing multi-stakeholders

How to upgrade services and introduce new ones in a complicated landscape?

Removing barriers impeding innovation, by aligning with the political and budgetary decision making.


New service design to enable welfare technology

How to rethink care for seniors in a cost effective way?

Strengthening the ethical and privacy definitions, as they are consistent bottlenecks.


Creating a senior-friendly city

How to design services to meet real-word needs?

Pooling together resources and actors to create a design-centric environment.


Bridging stakeholders’ needs with service design

How to best implement various model of care in older age?

Taking into account local problems: understand the local environments and build collaborative models.


Service design helps the city encourage active seniors

Need for a new intergenerational space in the city

Intergenerational Activity Center: activate the users according to their capacities.

After having share challenges and solutions, the conference investigated how to tackle societal challenges through the use of design. Prof. Birgit Mager, from the Koeln International School of Design, highlighted that nowadays the solutions brought to our societies are no longer satisfactory for tackling unemployment, well-being, social isolation. Citizens become more matures and outspoken, alongside with the fact that the problems become more interconnected: we need to deal with “wicked problems” (concept introduced by Horst Rittel). But what is a wicked problem? It is one that has no substantial formulation. Well, not easy then to work on this. Ageing is considered a “wicked problem”, as some conceive it first as a problem, and second a multi-facet one (economical? Social? Cultural? Political problem?) without a substantial formulation.

On the contrary AGE sees ageing as a resource and a very variegated one. It depends on how much you zoom in or zoom out. Most of the solutions are solved when the right question is asked, when the issue is framed. Rather a wicked challenge than a wicked problem.

Wicked challenges “are never over. And their solutions are not true or false, good or bad, they are maybe better or preferable, but there is no right and no wrong”. There is no immediate or ultimate test of a solution to a wicked challenge, we are not aware of the side effects in years. And every solution to a wicked challenge is a one-shot solution.
Systematic mistakes in dealing with complexity have been underlined. Mistakes are:

  • usually based on unvalidated hypothesis (assumptions that are not confirmed).
  • Speed and activism: get things done is not a good thing unless you have a good understanding of the systems
  • tendency to sideshows, focusing on something that is on the back and not on the central picture.
  • Singular solution strategies. Multi-focus is needed, different directions need to be explored
  • more of the same, override, overdose (The titanic had this problem, Chernobyl too)
  • Trust: the main mistake is trust, but at the same time is the only chance to deal with challenges. It is a mean to reduce complexity, and it is the starting point to act, but where does it come from?

In the light of the DAA experience, service design comes to help. “Service design co-creates services useful, usable, desirable from a user perspective and that creates value and differentiation for providers”. And as the examples of the 8 cities above, it is important to have clear policies to draw the path to user-centered implementation.

For more information on the event and the project, please visit https://daaproject.eu/events/final-event/ and contact the project coordinator: https://daaproject.eu/about/partners/

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