‘Transforming not excluding – the impact of information technology and innovation on later life’ was the subject of a Symposium held at the Palace of Westminster on Thursday 8th January 2015. The event was organised by the South East England Forum on Ageing (SEEFA) as part of a wider project on digital inclusion being undertaken in partnership with South East Age UKs.
75 participants at the Symposium included later life, digital inclusion and design experts, business leaders and representatives of central and local government. The debate was chaired by David Brindle, public services editor of The Guardian, and hosted by Lord Filkin, Chair of the Centre for Ageing Better.
The debate began with a discussion between Baroness Sally Greengross, Chief Executive of the International Longevity Centre (ILC); Dr Ros Altmann, national Older Workers Champion; and the Rt Hon Paul Burstow MP, former Minister of State at the Department of Health. Important points from this discussion were:
- The need to persuade (but not force) older people to embrace digital technology as both useful and ‘enabling them to enjoy life more’.
- An ILC finding that people who use the internet ‘feel more in charge of their lives’ with those who don’t feeling more socially isolated.
- That digital exclusion is not a transitory issue, with even those who are currently technologically competent running the risk of being left behind.
- The tendency for technology to make things faster and smaller while older people often increasingly want things to be ‘simpler, slower and bigger’.
- The potential of tablets (mobile computers with touch-screen displays) to make accessing the internet more user friendly than via desk-top computers.
- The need for local authorities to be creative in fulfilling their new duty in the Care Act to provide preventative services to maintain people’s health.
- The value to government of addressing people’s cost barriers and lack of access to advice, taking a long term view of the costs of digital exclusion.
The Symposium heard from the SEEFA Policy Panel – people who by virtue of their own life experiences are experts on later life – that the digital divide may actually be increasing rather than decreasing, with designers constantly overtaking people’s digital competence by creating ever more complex ‘menu driven’ cars, televisions and other equipment, ignoring older people’s preferences. Responding to this, Elaine Draper, Barclays Director of Accessibility and Inclusion, confirmed that ‘no business can afford to ignore the needs of older consumers’.
During the debate that followed a wide range of views were expressed, notably that:
- A starting point should be that society values older people with a goal of enabling people to lead fulfilling lives at whatever age.
- Technology can aid social inclusion e.g. enabling frail and elderly people to keep in contact when they are no longer physically able to meet up.
- However, digital competence also seems to cause some people to withdraw into social isolation and these interactions require further investigation.
- Income and education are key determinants of digital exclusion, while research confirms that lack of suitable and accessible support is a key barrier.
- There are good examples of health service and housing organisations giving older people tablets and arranging support for them to learn to use them.
- Putting ‘smart’ electricity meters into every household could be a way to giving everyone free access to the internet.
- A 7 dollar computer for people in Africa (designed by Commonland with a partner organisation) should be made available to people in the UK.
- Local authorities, in making savings, ‘must not engineer out social interaction’ and must continue to invest in community capacity.
- ICT can be a useful tool for maintaining people’s engagement in community initiatives – keeping in touch between meetings, sharing ideas, etc.
- Academic, industry and public services designers tend to ‘go for the novel and attractive’ rather than building on what has already been shown to work.
- The primary focus should be on using the technology we have in better ways rather than overly focusing on developing the techology itself.
There was a strong consensus in favour of focusing follow-up effort on involving older people in ‘co-producing’ the design of goods, services, policies and community initiatives. This included propositions that:
- Designers should start by asking what people are interested in and what’s important to them and should not be driven by what technology can do.
- ‘Good design is about simplicity’ and should build on things which people are already comfortable with – for example, ‘doing more with your television’.
- The focus should be on designing simpler user interfaces, whatever the underlying complexities, and technological progress is actually enabling this.
- The involvement of older people in developing the Care Act should be the forerunner for involving them in designing how it works on the ground.
- The concept of co-production should not only be embraced but also better understood, drawing on lessons from how people use ‘personal budgets’, etc.
Responding to the debate, Peter Dale, SEEFA Chairman, committed SEEFA to engage on this with later life, digital inclusion and design experts, business leaders and representatives of central and local government, combining forces with Age UK, the Age Action Alliance, The Age of No Retirement and the academic community. There would also be a longer published report from SEEFA/South East Age UKs’ wider project, including this important Symposium debate for which he thanked the leading speakers, the organisers and all the participants.
In concluding the proceedings, Lord Filkin warmly welcomed SEEFA and the South East Age UKs’ initiative and said that the debate had been relevant to many of the later life challenges set out in the ‘Ready for Ageing?’ report from the House of Lords Select Committee on Public Service and Democratic Change which he had chaired.