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How Design Thinking Can Help Us With Aging

Design competitions give a glimpse into what our future lives may be like

By Greg O’Neill

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of Next Avenue’s 2015 Influencers in Aging project honoring 50 people changing how we age and think about aging.)

A recent Harvard Business Review article shows how understanding the way older consumers use products, understanding their environments and then responding with innovative design can help us face the challenges of an aging population. Using the problem of poor medication adherence as a case in point, Rebecca Weintraub (director of Harvard’s Global Health Delivery Project) and José Colucci Jr. (an associate partner at the design firm IDEO) argue that this is "what design thinking is all about.”

After broadly evaluating various technology-based solutions designed to help elderly users adhere to their medication regimens, the authors concluded that solutions requiring multiple behavioral steps prove inadequate. What works better, they said, is observing users and grasping their needs and then devising an appropriate solution for them. In this case, Weintraub and Colucci found that older people are more likely to adhere to a medication regimen when the delivery method is more straightforward, as it is with PillPack, a dispensing service that IDEO helped design using this approach.

Indeed, IDEO's 91-year-old designer Barbara Knickerbocker Beskind has been spotlighted in Next Avenue’s 2015 Influencers in Aging list for her role in helping younger designers understand the challenges their products must address. The work of several of her fellow honorees on the list — Katy Fike, Joseph Coughlin, Laura Carstensen, and Ken Smith — also embodies her mantra to “design with, not for.”


The Competitions

Innovators both young and old who want to follow in these Influencers’ footsteps have many opportunities to help develop solutions for our aging population. Some competitions worth following:

  • The AARP Foundation, in collaboration with Katy Fike’s Aging 2.0, is inviting startups from across the country to apply for the 2016 Aging in Place Challenge. Contestants will have the chance to win a $50,000 cash prize for the most innovative solution that helps low-income adults 50 and older to continue to live safely, independently and comfortably in their own homes as they age. (The deadline to enter is May 2, 2016.)
  • The TechSAge Design Competition 2016, organized by the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technologies to Support Successful Aging with Disability at the Georgia Institute of Technology, focuses on inspiring innovative technology-enabled design solutions for the aging population, in the following categories: health at home, social connectedness, active lifestyle and community mobility. Contestants will compete to win first, second and third place cash awards totaling $4,000 in each category. (Finalists will be announced on March 1, 2016.)
  • Sha Yao, winner of last year's Stanford Center on Longevity Design Challenge, has seen her Eatwell tableware for Alzheimer’s patients move into mass production. Open to university students around the world who want to design products, services or tools that help people live better as they age, this year’s challenge theme was “Using Happiness to Optimize Longevity,” and winners will share over $50,000 in total prizes, mentorships and sponsored travel to Silicon Valley. Twelve finalists were recently announced, and you can follow their progress on Facebook


Greg O’Neill, Ph.D., is a demographer and director of the National Academy on an Aging Society, the public policy institute of The Gerontological Society of America. He is the founder of Aging Means Business, a communications venture spotlighting breakthrough ideas, innovations and strategies for the 50+ market and entrepreneurship by the 50+ demographic. Read More
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