On 11th and 12th May, an event took place in NatWest’s impressive offices in central London to inform the creation of a European Reference Framework for Age-friendly housing (due 2018). The event looked at the wider theme of “Neighbourhoods of the Future.” I was delighted to be asked to speak during the second day, giving me the opportunity to talk both about MedCity and about DigitalHealth.London. The conference took place just days after we learned that Sadiq Khan has been elected as the new Mayor of London and given his strong commitment to housing, it was a good opportunity to create a bridge between different policy areas – housing, health and social care.
From both the event’s agenda, and from those contributing, it is clear that there area a number of elements that need to be considered when building a framework for age friendly housing and longer term care provision. Over the two days, the conference considered property, the role of digital technology, the importance of design, ways of supporting communities, and at the heart of the issue, people.
The vast majority of built property in the UK (95%) is age-unfriendly. It is not able to provide a suitable environment for those who, as they move through the various phases of their lives, wish to continue living in the same place – healthily, safely, and with suitable support. The benefits of carrying out the modifications to enable them to do so are obvious, as indeed is the idea of designing in requirements for older people and establishing homes as being maximally digitally enabled. One question is how house builders can be incentivised to do this, particularly given the current push to create more affordable starter homes. If digitally enabled homes come at a cost premium, is this something that can be achieved for the majority?
During my talk, I raised what I consider to be one of the key challenges within the UK in terms of exploiting digital technology to support people (of any age) within their own homes – that is the separation between the social care budget, which sits with Local Authorities, and the health budget, which sits across a wide range of NHS organisations. This is a real challenge for all of us, particularly entrepreneurs who are developing technology which might generate benefits and savings within one area (budget) while the costs are incurred in a different organisation or budget. I think it is absolutely imperative that innovators have a clear understanding of these budgeting and organisational issues as they develop their ideas and their business models. Sadly, we don’t have any easy solutions, but a good understanding of the economic and health economic case for any technology is key. The good news is that through DigitalHealth.London, there are people that you can turn to who can give advice and guidance on these issues.
The need for good design was a consistent theme over the two days. Design as a critical component of technology development is key in achieving acceptance; the better the design, the more straightforward the user acceptance process is. Similarly, with the built environment, good design will be a key element in terms of how age friendly features are incorporated into the buildings of the future. This point was brought home to me with startling simplicity by the wonderful and inspiring Prof Heinz Wolff of Brunel University. Although he was there to talk about people being at the absolute centre of care provision, with his proposal for Give and Take (GAT) based pensions, he showed a slide of a 1970s washing machine, complete with a waist height door that allowed loading and unloading of the washing without the need for bending or crouching down, and with a flat top that allowed for placing of clean washing at height and not on the floor. Prof Wolff bemoaned the fact that design and technological development had resulted in present day appliances being much less user friendly, particularly for older users. He was right. I looked at that picture and wondered how we had managed to end up devices that invariable result in me (at least) dropping my lovely clean laundry onto the floor! It is sometimes good to be reminded that technology has to be used by people, and that we should make this as simple and as straightforward as we possible can.
As I was unable to attend the whole two days of the conference, I am grateful to Angus Wallis, who gave me a great précis of the whole Neighbourhoods of the Future event. If you are interested in reading a fuller account of the meeting, Angus has written an account, which can be found at https://uk.linkedin.com/in/anguswallis. I am grateful to him for allowing me to plagarise his work!