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NEW OLD at the Design Museum

Thinking about design for the elderly may conjure up images of walkers and orthopedic shoes. The Design Museum’s pop-up exhibition is having none of that. NEW OLD not only aims to rethink design for the ageing population but also our attitudes towards ageing.

NEW OLD is an update on Helen Hamlyn’s exhibition New Design for Old, held at the V&A Boilerhouse 30 years ago. Since then, the UK’s population has aged considerably. In mid-2014, the average age surpassed 40 for the first time and by 2040 it’s estimated that nearly one in seven will be over 75. With the rapidly ageing population, there’s an opportunity for design to create things that will lead to people living more fulfilling lives as they grow older.

The exhibition is divided into 6 sections: Ageing, Identity, Home, Community, Working, and Mobility. The Design Museum has commissioned special designs for each theme which sit alongside projects that cater to the new older generation.

Among the commissions is Aura by Superflex and Yves Béhar, a suit that uses motors, sensors, and artificial intelligence to give support to the user. It can assist the wearer in getting up, sitting down, and staying upright, helping them to maintain mobility.

Another project is Spirit by IDEO, an artificially intelligent personal assistant that could help connect older people and develop communities. Spirit could build profiles of its users out of the data it collects – who they speak to, what they watch, how they respond to others and their environment etc. – and then suggest potential friends or co-workers it thinks they would get along with. If it sounds a little intrusive, that’s because it is. The project questions the intrusiveness of new technology and reminds us that design needs to take human agency into consideration.

The museum commissioned an Ipsos MORI poll asking respondents if they would prefer to be looked after by robots or humans in their old age. A quarter said they would prefer robots, and the statistic rose to a third among younger participants. ElliQ is an example of what the near future could bring in response to this sentiment. A table top robot, ElliQ sits next to a screen that allows users to interact with friends and family on social media or through video calls. It is designed to assist older people with technology and help them to stay connected. It also uses AI to learn about its user and make suggestions on content and activities to keep them active.

Despite the changing demographics, there is still a stigma attached to growing older. Elderly people are often marginalised in society and in the media. But what we perceive as old is changing and those who reach old age over the coming decades will likely experience their later years differently to those before. And with the help of design, the new old will surely age gracefully.

NEW OLD runs until February 19 2017.

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