A New Angle: The Design Age Institute wants to meet the physical, mental and social needs of our ageing population

The institute was founded in lockdown, a time in which many of us truly grasped the challenges of social isolation – something that older generations face everyday.

13 July 2021

A New Angle is an editorial series that aims to give a platform to creative industry changemakers who make it their mission to disrupt the status quo. Each week we’ll chat to a person or team doing important work in the sector, making it a fairer place, championing vital causes, supporting underrepresented groups and tackling pertinent issues facing creatives everywhere.

This week, we chat to Colum Lowe, Director of the Design Age Institute, a newly-formed organisation that aims to create a space for the development of products and services that support healthy ageing. Established last year as part of The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art, the institute brings together expertise from leading organisations in the fields of research, design, innovation and learning to imagine a future where the inevitable difficulties can be met with real solutions. Below, Colum tells us about the institute’s mission, its impressive partnerships, and what it needs to move forward.

It’s Nice That: What about the creative industry are you hoping to change and why does it need changing?

Colum Lowe: The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design has 30 years experience practicing and promoting inclusive design, design that includes as diverse a range of users as practical and involves extreme user groups to ensure their needs are not accidentally overlooked in the design of buildings, environments, products and services. The Design Age Institute hopes to build on this and bring it to the mainstream of the creative industries, to use it to ensure that everyone, no matter their age, is truly included in society and can enjoy the benefits of living longer. Our mission is to help others develop products and services that lessen the impacts of the inevitable consequences of ageing and meet users' needs, wants and (most importantly) desires.

INT: What have you built, and how does it tackle these industry issues?

CL: As a new institute we haven’t built anything yet, nor is it our role to do so. Our aim is to facilitate the UK design industry to work with Great British manufacturers, public and third sector organisations to design better, more inclusive products and services. To help us achieve this we are in partnership with Oxford and Newcastle Universities and the International Longevity Centre, who provide the necessary research, insight and intelligence to support new product development, and the Design Museum who help to disseminate the work. We also have a free design management resource to facilitate suitable projects and some seed funding to help de-risk early stage user research and design development.

INT: What other organisations are out there like yours, and what sets yours apart?

CL: There are plenty of design companies working in this space – which we hope to capture in our Design Directory and advertise freely to potential clients – as well as research and development units in many educational institutes, and other national organisations such as the Design Council and Nesta, all of whom work to promote this agenda. What we like to think makes us a little different is our singular mission around the healthy ageing economy, looking at market failure, and our focus on using the assets of an ageing population – its passions, experiences, and interests – to drive positive change, not just in people’s lives, but in industry and society.

INT: What are the major challenges you’re facing?

CL: At this moment in time, the same as everyone else. Founding and building an institute during lockdown has proven challenging, and there are certain activities that simply have not been possible, e.g. public events, talks, workshops, co-creation activities etc. Although lockdown has had one benefit – it has shone a light on the significant issue of social isolation that many older people can experience. Almost all of us, over the last year or so, have experienced social isolation to some degree and hopefully can now better empathise with how horrible it is and how it can impact both mental and physical health. Clearly, tackling social isolation will be one of the key challenges for the Design Age Institute going forward.

INT: What can the creative industry do to support your mission?

CL:Firstly, and most importantly, understand the basic aspects of healthy ageing and inclusive design, weave it into their design processes, and promote it to their clients. Not simply because it is the right thing to do but because it is a significant market. Over 50s hold 70 per cent of all household wealth in the UK and by 2040 over 55’s will account for 63p in every pound spent. And secondly, for those with inclusive design or design for ageing expertise or experience, register on our Design Directory so we can showcase their talents and projects more broadly.

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About the Author

Daniel Milroy Maher

Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.

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