* Nicola Palmarini is Director of the UK’s National Innovation Centre for Ageing
The discussion on housing associated with the aging of the population is complex but extremely relevant. Not only because by 2050 about one in four people will be 60 years old (without taking into account the fact that life expectancy in Western countries grows at the rate of 2 years every decade). But above all because this theme has to do with that articulated matter that we could define as life.
Home means affection
It is worth remembering how much home means affections: the place where friends and family come together and which, over the years, acquires an ever higher psychological value.
The home is the place that holds the memories of our life. Its rooms have been the stage of our triumphs and tragedies, its attics are an archive of treasures acquired over time: linen, African benches, books, ties, photographs, wedding dresses, widespread odds and ends. The carbon14 markers of our existence.
Refuge or theater?
So if on the one hand we find ourselves interpreting the translation of an asset (and a capital: 80% of the over 60s in Italy own their own home) that is strongly linked to tradition and its passing on to our kids, we cannot fail to take note of the dynamics in place on a social level. So is the house a refuge or a theater?
Loneliness accelerates aging
The issues of loneliness and social isolation are certainly not a consequence of the virus and branding them as only related to the oldest part of the population would be a mistake. But it is true that, as the neuroscientist John T. Cacioppo says, "the chronic sensation of isolation can guide a cascade of physiological events that accelerate the aging process".
We need a multigenerational approach to housing
So if we add up the need to live in a comfortable and socially connected space with the opposite extreme (the difficulty of younger generations to bear the cost of living), it is easy to understand how a multigenerational approach to housing can provide a key of reading what awaits us in the future-present.
That is, denser communities made up of smaller houses, with greater accessibility to services associated with phenomena such as co-housing, finally cleared by ‘Uber-like’. Like Nesterly, the most fitting example of how to transform needs into opportunities, industrializing them through new (business) languages.
The choices of the upper affluents
Someone may also choose to completely get rid of their home to be pampered by new housing contexts, such as the one proposed by The Embassies in Zurich. Defining them as a residence for the elderly is definitely inappropriate, especially after having been inert witnesses of the carnage that occurred in these places during the peak of the virus (the stereotype of everything that we would never have dared to associate with our ideal of dignity). Those who choose places like The Embassies are clearly part of an upper-affluent but growing market, and certainly to be kept in mind.
Fundamental will also be the phenomena where the theme of care and relationship is based on similar logics – although totally different – from the concept of ‘home delivery’. OnHand in England or the PeopleWalker in California – which offer home care services to those who cannot move from home - became famous during the pandemic but they existed before. So similar (an app, a GPS) and yet so different from a Grubhub or Amazon delivery because here the object delivered is called – in essence – love. And my suggestion is to not underestimate not only the need, but the commercial attractiveness.
Multigeneration houses against inequalities
The intergenerational theme is to be kept in mind in our radars because there is an objective need for new flexible housing solutions, capable of mitigating inequalities (gender, social, economic), interpreting and adapting to the new standards of the different stages of life ( and not just age). However, it is necessary to learn to do this by interpreting not only needs, bu t– above all – by listening to the real great absent from our discussions around the planet longevity: desires.
Seniors are the market of the future
Obsessed with trying to intercept Millennials and the like, we are addicted to an unconscious bias that over-60 is a demographic and social category defined by the word retiree. So fragile, vulnerable, technologically inept people, the same and homologated to housewives for which there are only problems or needs: of bathtubs with door, electric stair climbers and denture adhesives.
One does not realize the missed opportunity to grasp the desires (and not the needs!) of those people. Who have passions, desire, taste, intelligence, experience, ability to choose, and above all – unlike Millennials – they possess, in Italy, two thirds of the assets above 200,000 euros. A lack of opportunity (profit, social return and innovation), in my opinion, from every industry including the design industry.
Cooking between grandparents and grandchildren
Those who have noticed it have begun to think about promising territories. Like the 4GenKi project by the British designer Johnny Grey – ‘the star of the kitchens of the stars’ in UK – which takes place in a single environment capable of dynamically evolving, from the wall units to the floors, from the ‘children’ season to the ‘grandchildren’. Respecting them both.
The age of Agetech
In the background, of course, technology is the master: and even if we still basically build houses as we did hundreds of years ago, we have created systems to make them more intelligent.
The nascent Agetech sector supporting the so-called Ageing in Place is the new Bengodi of Venture Capital and start-ups. And so on along the silicon of sensors, robotics, intelligent management of the environment, etc. Impossible and even boring to list everything that is going on around this domain. It is perhaps sufficient to mention the only Samsung Ballie capable of combining design and knowledge to help manage our life by orchestrating the data collected by an entire domestic ecosystem. An attempt, of course, but which suggests a way in which the object of interaction is, in fact, only through a more complex system that buzzes in the background between cloud and artificial intelligence.
The ethical theme
That's all? Oh no, there is a silent inconvenience hanging over the background: it's called ethics. And it concerns data and their management; concerns the possibility of fair access to progress; it's about controlling us and others.
The boundary between autonomy and abuse is a labile and treacherous territory: a boundary that every generation, no one excluded, is learning to defend and which will be the decisive discriminant on which businesses, including design companies, will play their success.