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Can good design solve China’s ageing population problem?

by Mark Hedley
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As China’s ageing population becomes more of an issue, products that offer solutions to such problems are becoming a hot topic at events such as the upcoming Design Intelligence Awards — applications for which close on 9 July — writes Robynne Tindall

The results of China’s 2020 census showed that the population is ageing rapidly. There are now 264 million people over the age of 65 in China, accounting for 13.5% of the 1.4 billion population, an increase of 4.6% from the 2010 census. While the share of older people in the population is still lower than in neighbouring countries like Japan and South Korea, the pace of ageing in China is likely to continue to accelerate over the next two to three decades.

launchpad CBBC

This problem is not unique to China, and it creates a growing challenge for governments, both in terms of how to maintain a sustainable working-age population and how to care for the growing number of older adults. In 2020, China’s Social Security Administration predicted that its pension fund could be depleted by as early as 2035 unless remedial measures were taken, and there is also a lack of nursing home provision, especially at the more affordable end of the spectrum. According to a 2019 China Daily article, only 3% of Shanghai’s elderly population lives in a nursing home, with 90% living at home. However, as the post-one child policy generations mature, there are fewer family members available to look after older people at home.

Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, recently announced that it is recruiting a group of people over the age of 60 to advise on how to make its app more accessible and appealing to older people

Companies from a wide range of sectors are coming up with hardware and software solutions to address these problems. The Healthy Ageing Challenge, one of UK Research and Innovation organisation’s projects, is investing up to £98 million in healthy ageing, and has identified seven themes that offer the greatest potential to stimulate innovation in the pursuit of longer, healthier lives:

  • Sustaining physical activity
  • Maintaining health at work
  • Designing for age-friendly homes
  • Managing the common complaints of ageing
  • Living well with cognitive impairment
  • Supporting social connections
  • Creating healthy and active places.
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In many cases, the best innovations start much earlier than retirement age. For Helen Crampin, the Investment and Technology Innovation Lead at Healthy Ageing, the key is trying to create a long-term sea change rather than short term fixes. “At the centre of what we’re trying to do is help people age better, so not even have to go to hospital or into social care… We don’t just aim our products at the elderly, we’re aiming our products at [people in their] 40s and 50s, making people think about the way they’re living,” she said.

As a country that has only started to combat its ageing population more recently, China has a leg up in terms of designing products for older users from the ground up. Another area where UK businesses can learn from China is digital inclusion. The proportion of internet users in China aged 50 or above increased from 17% in March 2020 to 27% by the end of 2020, and many older people are using smartphones for everything from mobile payment to entertainment, particularly in urban areas. Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, recently announced that it is recruiting a group of people over the age of 60 to advise on how to make its app more accessible and appealing to older people.

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As a judge in this year’s Design Intelligence Awards (DIA), Crampin believes that design plays an indispensable role in creating products and services that older people can and will actually use. “Design should come at the stage of ideation… you should be thinking about your end-user when the idea is sparked,” she says. In actuality, many software platforms that have a use elsewhere are being retroactively applied to ageing, “but the design for ageing hasn’t happened until that product is nearly fully formed.”

Offering advice to this year’s DIA applicants,  Crampin draws on her experience working on investor partnerships as part of the Healthy Ageing Challenge. Many social enterprises find it hard to access early-stage funding because commercial investors want to see a two to three-year exit strategy, which is not always possible for solutions that are targeting long-term change. She suggests that companies applying to the DIA that face this issue consider both the short and long-term strategies for their products, as well as how to highlight other attractive aspects of their company, such as their founder and leadership team.   

Visit this link to apply for the Design Intelligence Awards — the entry deadline for UK applicants is 9 July

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