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Stephen Johnston Is Building Aging 2.0

He's leading the charge to solve eight grand challenges

By Richard Eisenberg

The motto of Aging 2.0, a global innovation platform for aging and senior care, is "Changing the Conversation." That's exactly what entrepreneurs Stephen Johnston and former Influencer in Aging Katy Fike set out to do when co-founding the organization in 2012 to help startups address the biggest challenges and opportunities in aging.

Today, Aging 2.0 has a volunteer-run chapter network in more than 120 cities and 24 countries. Credit for much of this growth goes to the peripatetic and hugely admired visionary Johnston, based in Melbourne, Australia. He received more Influencer in Aging nominations from the public than anyone since Next Avenue began seeking them in 2015.

People who recommended Johnston called him "the first person that comes to mind when you think of creating a better, safer, more human environment and culture for older people;" "someone helping to elevate the thinking of startups" and "one of the most effective and relentless people advocating for disruption across the aging market."

His latest Aging 2.0 initiative: The Collective, dubbed "the world's first collective intelligence platform for innovation in aging." Johnston, a former business development manager at the multinational telecommunications company Nokia, calls The Collective a matchmaking service. In some ways, it's the harbinger of what might be called Aging 3.0.

"2.0 has always been about 'let's actually look at the positive opportunities here.'"

Next Avenue: How did you first get interested in working in the world of aging?

Stephen Johnston: When I was at Nokia in 2010, working in mobile health care, I saw a new side of technology to be able to have an impact on health care in the developing world. And I just got really inspired. And then I ended up working on a mobile health care startup around dermatology and the dermatologist had a client who had been diagnosed with dementia. I fell in love with the problem — the fact — that aging and longevity had really been overlooked from a technology world.

The piece that appealed to me most was not just on the level of individual services or individual products. I always felt that it was a more important question about how we are going to change the whole system, rather than just make a better widget. And that was an idea that stuck with me and it created Aging 2.0.

What was the original vision for Aging 2.0? And has that evolved?

The 1.0 approach of aging is negative; aging is about failure, it's about decline. 2.0 has always been about 'let's actually look at the positive opportunities here. Let's look at the ability to kind of reinvent aging.'

But at the end of the day, we also need to solve some of the big challenges, what we call 'the eight grand challenges,' which can also be opportunities. So, it was about reinventing the aging space.

We started to have meetings and put chapters together and think about how to build a community of innovators in aging. The idea was: let's figure out what people want in terms of the problems and on the other hand, let's get people who can solve them, and these are oftentimes startups. And we've evolved since then with events and more corporate partnerships.

And this led to The Collective. What is it?

It's really trying to put a technology and innovation collective intelligence lens on top of all these insights and the events we've been having around the world. To understand what's happening in all the different chapters, to see the latest technology innovations, to start to collaborate on some of these big, hairy topics like elevating caregiving and crossing the digital divide [the haves and have-nots of technology access and usage].

I think it's a really exciting project.

We're really starting to move from a vision of connecting the dots and collecting people across our different chapters around the world and our different corporate partners to say, well, here are the common themes. What are companies working on? What is the progress that's been made? So you can start to see topics that are cross-disciplinary, international, that are bigger than any one company.

We've been really supported by some great corporate partners like Procter & Gamble and Amica and Nomura. And now our effort is in scaling it up to make it much easier to track what's happening around the world. Then we can start to look at the metrics of success.

You say in your 'digital divide' report said seventy-one percent of caregivers are interested in technology, but only seven percent are actually using it to assist in their caregiving duties. That's a pretty big disconnect.

Yeah. There's a really big opportunity here to use tech more effectively. But we're seeing some startups that are using technology to assess the capabilities of the family to look after the individuals with dementia, seeing early warning signs and biomarkers to be able to identify progression of the disease.

I think we're still some way off in terms of getting the solutions where we need.

I'm going to guess when you started Aging 2.0, there probably wasn't a lot of interest in aging from Silicon Valley and maybe even less from Fortune 500 companies. It seems like there's a little more interest than there was five, ten years ago.

Yeah, it's interesting. And so, I'd say there has been more interest, especially in Europe and Asia. There's certainly been some more funding. There's still not a lot of funding.

Are the products and services you're seeing different than when you started? My sense is that back in 2010, if you talked to companies and entrepreneurs about products for older people, it was about bigger buttons and what couldn't do. And I'm feeling like that's not necessarily the case these days.

"COVID has made the challenge around loneliness and engagement so much more important."

Completely agree. And I do think that there's some fantastic progress that's being made around some broad concept of design thinking. The idea that we can essentially put people who are users at the center of our thinking, rather than just focusing on the physical detriments and negative aspects of aging.

I think this idea that we can create a better understanding of what's needed driven by the customers' real needs and insights — it's super important.

I'd love to see more of the voice of the end user, the people who say: 'This is what I want. I need you corporates to get to figure it out, to make it safe, to not use data to make more money for you, but to use it to make better services.'

How well do you think entrepreneurs and big companies are doing including prospective users from the beginning as they're developing products and services?

I was just having a conversation with an entrepreneur who is developing a new technology to help people get online more quickly. This entrepreneur had spoken to a hundred and fifty people in customer-discovery interviews, which was much more than I saw a few years ago when entrepreneurs were saying, 'You know, my mom had an issue and I built a company around it.'

One of the challenges we find is that it's quite easy to get access to super well connected, healthy, happy, older people. It's harder to get connected to perhaps the people who need it more, who are super busy, who are super stressed — caregivers, perhaps, who don't have money and are not online.

So, that's where folks like us, I think, have a role to play in connecting the dots and being matchmakers.

You mentioned the grand challenges Aging 2.0 is working on, ranging from brain health to financial wellness. Are there any that are more critical right now or that you would single out over others?

It's a great question in terms of what matters most, because we had the same question two or three years ago when we sat down and said, 'Okay. What matters most in aging?' It was an iterative process, probably the better part of a year, when we whittled down this list to eight.

COVID has made the challenge around loneliness and engagement so much more important. Individuals are not able to get out and connect in the same way they've been able to before. So, we've been seeing a lot of interest in that and it's one of the grand challenges that we're super excited about.

Tell me about the Aging 2.0 chapters. What do they do? Can anybody join?

They're the core of what we do, and we are very grateful for those people who sign up. We are asking people to organize an ecosystem.

We've had about a thousand events over the last eight years or so. Most of them have been startup pitch events; we're starting to evolve those to conversations with a corporate partner around a topic.

Going forward, we'll be really creating more interesting mission-driven, topic-driven conversations. That's definitely where we want to take things.

What has been the most significant thing Aging 2.0 has done to help older people and change thinking about aging? What are you proudest of?

You know, we're just a very small bootstrapped organization with a lot of volunteers and a couple of dedicated and loyal partners. And I think we are a catalyst. I think this idea of being a catalyst for change is probably the thing that I'm most proud of.

How has the pandemic changed the way Aging 2.0 works?

I think there is a new kind of realization that we're all in this together. It doesn't really matter how wealthy you are. If you are exposed to others who are sick and who are suffering in a pandemic, then this is your problem.

I think we are also seeing a new interest in telehealth; this is a breakthrough moment.

From a silver lining perspective, there's been an acceleration of understanding of the need for making tech usable for vulnerable populations.

What do you think Aging 3.0 is going to look like? And when do you think we'll see that?

I think we need to be leaning into the conversation constantly, asking ourselves what's next.

For me, 2.0 is really about a new, kind of mindset and changing the paradigm. I think Aging 3.0 will be a much different society, one in which the voices and the power and the potential of older people are really much more realized and come to the fore.

It'll be a systems-change mentality where we are all in this together, creating a system that works to reduce and solve the problems collectively. The experience, the wisdom and the contributions of older people will be valued just as much as the younger people.

There will be ways that are more successful than others. And I think those successful ways will be the 3.0 versions.

Two Questions for Our Influencers

If you could change one thing about aging in America, what would it be?

Propaganda-for-good. Ideally, change the mentality of Madison Avenue in the 1960s and their fetishization of youth. For today, redirect the best brains from car companies and social media to build new marketing narratives about the value of experience, wisdom and age. This is what our Sao Paolo Aging 2.0 Chapter is doing actually.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your perspective on aging?

It's brought structural ageism crashing into view. It's made many experience soul-destroying isolation. But there are silver linings, from rewarding competent governments to spurring digital divide efforts and telehealth. Plus, people are now collaborating digitally; we really don't need to fly around the world to share information.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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