Social Design: From Universal Design to Eldercare Services
Since its inception following the Second World War, the industrial design profession has provided delight in our everyday products by creatively combining utility with beauty. Less noticed, but just as significant, is design’s role in providing a host of solutions intended to meet the needs of the world’s underserved populations. Sometimes referred to as “social design” this is an increasingly important focus for our profession. During a recent lecture on the “Longevity Economy” sponsored by Indiana University’s School of Informatics, researchers from IBM pointed out that for the first time in history, people over 65 outnumber children under five years old.
When we think about design and the aging population, we naturally think about the design of everyday objects and how we might design products to better accommodate the needs of the elderly. Universal Design—not to be confused with the design mandates embedded in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a 1990 civil rights law that mandates accessibility standards for those with restricted mobility, hearing, and vision impairment to access places of public accommodations—is really a fundamental component of “good design.” That is, design that meets the needs of everyone.
The principles of Universal Design were formally documented by a team of architects, product designers, engineers, environmental design researchers and academics at North Carolina State University in 1997 in order to raise awareness with the broader population. The resulting “7 Principles for Universal Design” are: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use. Since their publication, we’ve moved beyond those less-than-elegant products like telephones with grossly over-sized buttons and large type fonts, to products that encompass these Universal Design attributes in a more sublime fashion. Today, well-designed “products for everyone” exist in just about all consumer product categories and at accessible, mass market price points.
Addressing the more dynamic needs of the elderly, specifically how and where they live, is entering the realm of the designer through maturing IoT-based systems. It can be argued the current crop of internet-connected devices such as behavioral-based learning thermostats, smartphones with apps to control home appliances, and digital voice assistants are naturally suited to make the elderly’s home life more convenient and comforting. More far-reaching opportunities are emerging through the application of home health oriented IoT-systems.
These systems address the elderly’s desire to “age-in-place”—extending their ability to remain safely and securely in their own home, delaying entry into costly assisted living facilities. According to the Aging in Place Technology Watch, 80% of older adults in the U.S. live in their own homes, with one-third of the 65+ age group living alone. While there is a general desire among older adults to continue living at home, there is heightened interest among the oldest of the baby boomer generation, those adults that turned 70 in 2016. This is a huge market. In 2017, the AARP forecast that by 2020 117 million people are expected to need some form of assistance, however they estimate only 45 million unpaid caregivers—better known as family members—and five million paid caregivers will support that cohort. It’s clear the traditional forms of caregiving cannot adequately address this gap.
This is where IoT based solutions come in. A variety of internet-connected sensor types can passively monitor activity patterns like sleep, movement, hygiene, and the use of kitchen appliances, and notify caregivers when there are significant changes in these patterns. The “intelligence” in these systems is their ability to intake massive amounts of information these sensors generate, analyze these data, establish known behavioral patterns, and notify family members only when necessary.
This approach provides peace of mind for the family, avoids flooding them with false alarms, and maintains the elderly’s dignity. Unlike the simple medical alert systems with their clinical looking pendants, these intelligent IoT systems could be customized to discretely meet a range of home health needs, from diet and nutrition, to medication monitoring and management, and even post-surgical recovery and therapy regimens.
Much work is to be done before these systems become commonplace, including establishing financially viable business models. However, the dynamics of the consumer technology market place, with its history of driving cost down while increasing operational efficiency, these home health systems for the elderly have the potential to dramatically change the healthcare cost curve.