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Innovation must match challenge of ageing population

While the UK's population is ageing by five hours a day, innovation is lagging behind finds a report from the UK's innovation foundation reiterating the message of our Newcastle Initiative on Changing Age.

Echoing the work of Professor Tom Kirkwood, Associate Dean for Ageing, the report finds that generation X-ers, such as Peter Andre who turns 40 this year, and Derren Brown who turns 42 this year, will face a very different type of retirement, but one that our society and economy are unprepared for and where innovation is lagging.

The report, Five Hours a Day: Systemic Innovation for an Ageing Population, calls for real change to address our ageing society, not just carrying on with out-of-date assumptions about ageing and with out-of-date ways of living and working. Shifting the debate from retrofitting traditional approaches, the report emphasises the need for systemic change through innovations in policy, products and services and markets as well as behaviours to meet the dramatically changing needs and opportunities of an ageing population.

Professor Tom Kirkwood, who leads Newcastle University’s broad-ranging Newcastle Initiative on Changing Age welcomes the report: “Although everyone knows that lifespans are getting longer, few yet appreciate just how radical a change is ahead. When I began expressing the rate as an increase of five hours a day, which if anything is on the conservative side, it seemed to help focus minds.

"Increasing longevity brings challenges, of course, but what it really offers are opportunities. We’ve been working hard in Newcastle to catalyse the necessary innovation and I am therefore delighted that Nesta has made a bold commitment to this vital agenda.”

Although innovations across science and technology over the past century have radically increased life expectancy, many of our social institutions like social care feel increasingly archaic and out-of-step, the report says. It argues that by focusing on important areas such as social care funding, quality of care in hospitals and care homes, and existing older people’s services, questions about whether the underlying approach is the best one are being left unexamined.

Halima Khan, director of Nesta’s public services lab and report author explains: “Whilst scientists have found the ‘ageing genes’ and are trying to unlock the fundamentals of how we age, social policy and how we think about age is stifled.  We need to build approaches that are fit for the future – not preoccupy ourselves with mending models that were built for the past.”

Older people are more likely to set up successful new businesses, provide unpaid care for their peers, be happier and better off than younger counterparts1. Recognising ageing as a dynamic and evolving issue, the report argues that we need to move beyond ‘chronologism’ – basing our judgements on people’s age, rather than skills and experiences – and consider the implications of much longer lives on our whole life course and how we live and work.  

 The report recommends the following as key systemic challenges to be solved:

• Social places: mobilise vibrant, socially-engaged neighbourhoods to enable older people to live well and independently for longer.
• People powered health: bring the social into the medical by combining clinical expertise with self-management and peer support to improve health outcomes.
• Purposeful work: develop new employment models that enable people to work purposefully and enjoyably in the second half of life.
• Plan for life: create a sense of opportunity about the second half of life – to take stock, reskill, plan ahead, connect with others and live more healthily.
• Living room: enabling older people to live where they want through new housing models which combine high quality accommodation with friendship and support.

The report explains that there are a number of different mechanisms that can contribute to systems change, including alliances of key organisations, systematic experimentation to develop, test and scale radically-improved solutions and key pieces of developmental infrastructure to orchestrate knowledge and action.

Khan continues: “Some of the most interesting innovations are those that enable people to help other people, in terms of neighbours helping one another, or older people mentoring younger people or supporting older people to live independently.”

Nesta is already supporting a number of innovations in ageing and is planning to launch a new programme of work on ageing in the summer. In preparation, Nesta is collating ideas and innovations that enable us to age well. The programme will build on Nesta’s current ageing programmes and support.

published on: 7 March 2013