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Web Posted on: August 4, 1998

Realising Potential: two complementary views from the RSA, London


Sue Hewer and Lesley James
8 John Adam Street, London, WC2N 6EZ
tel: + 171 930 5115, fax: + 171 839 5805
email: sue@rsa-design.demon.co.uk



Two RSA projects are working towards identifying and exploring the changing patterns in society related to the ageing population. Redefining Work examines the economic and social policy issues and the Student Design Awards encourages in a practical way the implementation of 'design for all' in its projects for young designers.

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Redefining Work


In 1996 the RSA initiated a major national debate on one of the most crucial and complex set of issues facing society now. Redefining Work is concerned with the ways our society may function in the next century and the assumptions we might make about the nature and pattern of work within it. It was established to identify and examine how changes in working patterns were affecting people's lives. These changes are common throughout Europe. They include increases in part-time working and short-term contracts; the globalisation of work and communications; and the transformation brought about by Information Technology (IT).

The issues explored within the project did not fit neatly into separate categories but instead they crossed conventional boundaries and although 'older people' was not a specific, distinct area of inquiry it became one of several over-arching themes.

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Presentation Body, Three Key Issues

I propose to concentrate on three issues which I believe are critical to the fulfilment of this conference's brief:

  • finance
  • work and jobs
  • the contribution to be made by IT.

Britain is not alone in having an ageing population. Neither is it the only country currently engaged in discussions about how adequate financial provision can be made for the funding of pensions in the next century. It is worth noting that Britain's State Pension (funded by compulsory contributions) is currently worth about 15% of average earnings. For the next generations it is estimated that this percentage will fall to about 8%. It is already at a level which, if that is a person's only source of income, that person will be entitled to additional payments from the state. What can be done? A number of possibilities can be put forward including:

  • The retirement age currently 65 could be raised to 67. This would reflect improvements in health.
  • People could be encouraged to prolong their working lives by removing the retirement age and instead have a system whereby, say, 30% of the State Pension could be claimed at the age of 60, 75% at 65, 100% at 70.
  • People could be encouraged or compelled to make their own financial arrangements for their retirement and thus remove the State's responsibility completely.

There are many other suggestions currently being considered by the British Government Review which will report at some time in the next 12 months. The financial structure of pensions is not the main subject of this conference, however, I would contend that the 'improvement of the quality of life and autonomy of older people' can not be considered without some consideration of people's financial situations.

Any suggestion that working lives might be extended leads into the obvious follow-up question. If this were to be done, are there jobs within the economy to make this a viable recommendation? The answer would appear to be 'no'. Again Britain is not alone here. In fact the British Government is targeting most of its energy and substantial resources into helping young people into jobs, rather than helping older people to stay in them.

This leads into my second area; Work and jobs. It is impossible to overstate the importance of work and jobs to people. People define themselves by what they do. It is their way of contributing to society. Within the project we have differentiated between work and jobs. Jobs are those things we do for which we are paid. Work includes activity we do within the home, for other people - and for which we do not get paid. (This is a rather brutal, simplified definition.) Britain has a long tradition, in common with many other countries, of voluntary work. Indeed as the State has reduced its activities in areas such as long term care, we rely more and more on volunteers. Is this the growth area where older people could make their contribution? However, a note of caution is needed - the ability to volunteer depends on having financial security in the first place - volunteers need to eat. One possible solution to this has been the growth of 'Local Exchange Trading Schemes' where people 'sell' their skills in exchange for someone else's or for vouchers which can be exchanged for goods and services.(The British Treasury is concerned about the current growth in Britain of these schemes as it currently has no means of taxing the 'income' received.) Many people have tried and failed to put a monetary value on the contribution that voluntary work makes to the British economy on an annual basis. Perhaps it is time to abandon that effort and instead to find some other way of 'valuing' what people can offer in terms of skills and expertise, outside the main economy, and put in place an exchange mechanism to enable older people and others of course, to earn a living through such an exchange.

My third area - Information Technology - could provide an obvious extension of the essentially local system outlined above. IT enables one to be globally mobile and accessible. It would not depend on each person having their own computer terminal, but rather that they have access to one. It could be via their local school or library for example. It has been said that one of the greatest potential benefits of IT is that it can remove age and disability bias because they become invisible. An 'on-line' worker is the same as any other.

The British Government recently launched a consultative paper on lifelong learning (The Learning Age: a renaissance for new Britain). One of the basic tenets of 'lifelong learning' must be to ensure access to learning for all - at all ages. Lifelong learning does not stop at 65. We should not assume that it is too difficult for older or disabled people to become adept at using IT. In a recent experiment a British supermarket chain gave a PC to 3 people and taught them how to do their weekly shopping 'on -line'. The older person used the PC more efficiently and enjoyed it more than the others who were considerably younger and might have been expected to be more immediately au fait with the technology. IT 'buses' have recorded great success with older people and demonstrated that everyone can learn to be IT literate.

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Perhaps part of the key to answering one of the conference's briefs - that of realising the potential of older people and people with disabilities - is not to assume that 'more of the same' that is, conventional paid jobs, is required but rather to recognise that we need to cross our own boundaries, think imaginatively and understand that more probably means 'different'.

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New Design for Old


The debate and findings generated by the Redefining Work project provide the factual backdrop and complementary material in order to discuss the RSA's New Design for Old project. This project runs within an overall scheme, the Student Design Awards, which is a competition for young designers throughout the EU and its main aim is to bring together education and industry in a mutually beneficial way. Representatives from industry and business support the scheme financially, help us to set realistic and challenging projects and judge the student entries. The RSA in turn keeps close to developments in education and indeed, helps to set the agenda by incorporating the needs of industry in its own project areas. We are thus in a prime position to influence industry, education and policy makers through our extensive RSA networks and connections. Lesley James has picked up on three essential issues in her paper: finance, work and jobs and the contribution to be made by IT. She has mapped out what the future holds for us in terms of pensions and work and what decisions have to be made. I would like to pick up the links between these socio/economic factors and design and discuss the issues further.

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Presentation Body

If, as we seem to be suggesting, our working lives are to be extended, or older people to play a larger part in the voluntary sector, then the infrastructure of our society needs to be appropriate for older people, able-bodied and those not so able. Transportation services, the vehicles we buy, the services provided in shops and banks, housing, advertising, environments, all these must take into account the needs and wants of older people. If this does not happen then we will not be able to include these people in our proposed extended work force and we are likely to have a marginalised, alienated section of the population dependent on very few government resources and relying on a dwindling, younger workforce.

Age can bring with it physical and psychological impairments and these impairments can be identified and alleviated by specific design, technology and assistive aids. I am advocating a different approach, a more holistic approach, the 'design for all' approach which aims at improving the quality of life for everyone by taking into account the needs of as wide a range of the relevant population, irrespective of age. 'Design for all' should also allow for end-users to be fully considered in the design process. It should make for a process which bridges the gap between users, producers and designers - a gap which is caused because of the lack of a systematic body of knowledge about the desires, needs and capabilities of that large range of non-heterogeneous older people.

In order to achieve this end we need to influence and encourage both the educators and those in education to incorporate into the curriculum and to practice age-related issues in design, engineering and architecture courses. We need a positive direction from governments that this should happen. We need to ensure that the students we are now influencing carry this approach to design through with them into their professional careers. We need to change the current mindset that 'young is best'. Ideally 'design for all' as a concept should become second nature to every designer, as in time, so will the consideration of sustainable environmental issues. We also need to persuade manufacturers of the potential challenge and possible profitability arising from the changing demographics. A major programme of incentives to industry to link both education and professional consultancies and manufacturers could be implemented in order to achieve the products and services that we deserve.

Through New Design for Old we ask students to re-design or design products, services, environments which can improve the quality of life for older people. Through the project we encourage intergenerational debate and exchange, we aim to raise the profile of older people, to look at ageing in a positive way and to bring industry into the arena. We want, through this project, to raise the awareness of industry to the potentially large market of older people and also to make companies aware of the much larger part our experienced and undervalued older section of the community could be playing.

Our aim through New Design for Old is to encourage students to:

  • understand the changing demographics and the design for all concept
  • understand the needs and aspirations of older people, who as consumers have been a neglected sector
  • innovate, producing services, products, environments etc. for the older marketplace
  • undertake a significant amount of user research, testing and evaluation which feeds into the overall design methodology.

In the eleven years that the project has been running it has gradually become hugely influential in design education and, together with its contribution to the Design for Ageing Network, has done much to heighten awareness and to change attitudes towards ageing.

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Design is integral to technology yet still most people tend to think of design in terms of products, despite the fact that the future is likely to hold for us not only products that we cannot yet imagine, but also the necessity for the design of a multitude of services. Already in the UK our manufacturing base has been greatly reduced and something like 70% of the workforce is employed in service industries.

Lesley James has drawn our attention to the possibilities of information technology and 'lifelong learning' contributing towards a better quality of life for older people and disabled people. Indeed the present cohort of older people who are not familiar with information technology will be replaced by a group much more used to and familiar with, computers, electronics, telecommunications, domotics in general. It is in this area that students excel. In the field of interactive design they are usually in advance of their tutors and the possibilities for extending communication and ameliorating problems for older people presents an exciting challenge. This has been seen in some of the New Design for Old projects which have presented well constructed, thoughtful, interactive solutions to everyday problems.

Design is not easily pigeonholed neatly as a scientific discipline nor does it have the same sort of research agenda, but design methodologies can help us move forward productively in finding solutions to the problems that the changing demographics will bring.

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