Why the UK needs more innovation in care for older people (five suggestions to go beyond the stereotypes)

In an article a few weeks ago titled "Why America Needs More Innovation in Eldercare", Renee Wittemyer and Jason Towns of Pivotal Ventures and Techstars drew attention with one of those hard to miss provocations: "Right now we invest more in care for pets than for older humans. It's a huge need and a huge opportunity". It is not clear to me where they got the pets vs. older people data from but certainly, we can agree that investing in elder care represents both a need and an opportunity.



Wittemyer and Towers’ article was instrumental in launching the Techstars Future of Longevity Accelerator – of which NICA is a mentor – to support 10 innovators who are leveraging their creativity and their own personal experiences to develop products and services that can make ageing in America a better experience for everyone involved.

Fortunately, the situation in the UK is quite different from that in the United States, where the absence of a public health system and the lack of strategic policies from the federal government pour inefficiency and inequity on the shoulders of the most disadvantaged citizens.

However, it is also true that the data that we observe here in the UK regarding health and social care is certainly not reassuring. According to Carers UK:

-The number of people caring for a family member has reached 6.5 million, a sharp increase of one million compared with a decade ago.

-4 million people provide over 50 hours of unpaid care per week.

-There will be 9 million carers in the UK by 2037.

-Every year over 2.1 million adults become carers and almost as many people find that their caring responsibilities come to an end. This ‘turnover’ means that caring will touch the lives of most of the population, as we all need or provide care or support family members caring for loved ones at some point in our lives.

-3 in 5 people will be carers at some point in their lives.

-But at the same time, NHS and local authority funding for services is decreasing, and 25% of UK care providers are facing insolvency.

-On top of all this, recent estimates show that COVID-19 has forced an extra 4.5 million people to add to this figure.

The topic of innovation in the UK’s ageing population is part of a brilliant government initiative – the Industrial Strategy Grand Challenges – that has chosen to focus on the challenges  – but also the opportunities – of an ageing society, as well as three other major challenges: Artificial Intelligence and Data, Future of Mobility and Clean Growth.

It is worth remembering them not just because they are crucial streams that we discuss every day and are at the top of the innovation agendas of public and private organisations from South Africa to Alaska, but, first and foremost, because they are deeply related to each other.

Choosing to add a challenge directly related to ageing underlines, in my opinion, an organic vision where interactions and correlations can only benefit one another. Not many governments in the world have made such a choice.

To those who may suspect that of these four challenges the ageing society can only benefit from the innovation coming from the other three, I would like to raise just one point among many. The contribution of the intelligence of the ageing society to Artificial Intelligence and data, Future of Mobility and Clean growth is perhaps, in my opinion, the most important capital that we have at our disposal and it is just waiting to be collected and shared. To think that these are “young for young” challenges is an error of perspective, meaning we miss one of the greatest opportunities that – beyond the economic promise of a potential market of €6.4 trillion and 88 million jobs by 2025 – are presented for the evolution of our society.

For these reasons, it is worth sharing five considerations based on the experience of our work at NICA.

1) The innovation of innovation

The first is to support an ‘innovation of innovation’ itself that is capable of combining an alternative narrative; I would say one which is more contemporary and closer to reality. Where the contribution to innovation also comes from the intellectual capital of older people, from their diversity, from their experience, from their dialogue with those younger generations that we perhaps have hastily baptised as the “owners” of what we refer to today as “innovation”.

We have everything needed to bring that intelligence to the table of the future – at NICA we have called it Ageing Intelligence® – we put it into the system, bring it out, promote it.

I am convinced that the first (country) that succeeds in capitalising on this intelligence could have in its hands the keys to evolve economically and socially towards that season of renewal that we have never tired of invoking along with revolutions – in urban contexts, in our way of working, in caring for others – brought out so clearly by COVID-19.

2) Are “older adults” the only target of innovation?

I think it is an error of perspective to think that the solutions to support the ageing society are necessarily “for the older adults”. We could – and increasingly should – discuss who are ‘the older people’ today. We should recognise uniqueness, and the diversity of individuals, rather than demographic clusters.

Looking at what their cultural and social desires and references are in the light of the social revolution we are witnessing is necessary to imagine integrated solutions and is the only way to bring to the table – at the same time – an entire social system. Otherwise, we would only listen to partial desires, needs and dreams, as if isolated in a sealed container, without the actors involved being able to interact with each other and verify their respective desires.

Co-design does not only take place between organisations and seniors. But also, and above all between people in relation to each other throughout the different phases of life, of which, then, organisations have to translate and interpret. An iterative process that does not begin and does not end with a design thinking session. It is time to open a new season (methodological and process) of involvement and joint listening between people in their different phases of life.

This is what we have started to do systematically at NICA. Opening our VOICE community to inter-generational exchange, bringing to the table not “a demographic category”, but the circles of people and their relationships and forging strategic partnerships with those who pursue this same logic: with Cirkel being the latest in this direction.

3) The Geography of Innovation

The Geography of Innovation needs to broaden the boundaries. If London, Cambridge and Oxford in the UK act as magnets because of their history and their fantastic ability to attract talent and investment, I have lived long enough in the other Cambridge (Massachusetts) to also realise that even within one of the most renowned research organisations on this planet there is a kind of humility based on building evidence-based solutions. That is the principle of everything, and it needs an ethical approach and scientific rigour.

These principles of course belong to many research institutions across the world. It is time we give voice to a cultural diversity involving researchers and innovators grounded in different areas of the planet who are facing similar challenges that can help us understand the diverse human experiences of older individuals and their stakeholders in these context.

Events like COVID have showed us how online networking and remote collaboration are not only a nice-to-have, but real (and fully digital enabled) tools to engage with other research entities and explore new opportunities and solutions.

4) Calling all women

We probably don’t have to read the permanent flow of global reports suggesting the burden of care over women’s shoulders. We know it. However, in case you didn’t notice, it is healthy to say it once again: there are 30.5% of women in the care giving sector caring for at least one older, dependent person. In 18.6% of these cases, the family member lives at home. 34% of care giving at home is provided only by women, with an equivalent 28.6% of men taking care of elderly and dependent parents alone.

The care these women provide is impacting their lives with a YouGov report showing that ‘women are more likely to have given up work or reduced working hours to care, especially those women aged 40-60’. The same report also noted that women aged 45-54 were more than twice as likely than men to have given up work to care, or four times more likely to have reduced their working hours due to their caring responsibilities.

If we ever really have the desire to equalise this disparity (and we do), we must, first of all, involve women more in the process of innovation of care that – still involving them personally – makes them the most expert on the planet. However, if we keep repeating the equation women=care we risk of wasting another huge opportunity for social evolution and, at the same time, for pure innovation and benefit of the Planet.

In STEM careers, the “T”s and “E”s above all, women are still incredibly penalised. One reason is certainly the aforementioned, but even when freed from the commitments of care it is the entire innovation sector that keeps woman out of the action.

One of the ways to try to unhinge the above equation is to involve, promote, and support in an unequivocal way, the genius of women to enter decisively into areas like Technology and Engineering that are indispensable for our future and that seem to interest a growing number of investors.

The future of humanity cannot be left only in the hands of predominantly white heterosexual men, just as the analysis of needs and desires should not solely be based in western cultures and male gender stereotypes.

5) The real innovation in eldercare is probably not in eldercare (CMO’s of the world, please read this)

To think that innovation only translates into technology or the concept of start-ups, that innovation only resides in Californian garages or London coworking and in that fiction and imagination, or only in companies and solutions labelled “agetech” or “for older adults” is probably a mistake.

On the one hand, we have to do everything we can to support and promote the idea that innovation can attract ideas, solutions and capital. Maybe it really can generate a sector we have called Agetech that promises to be x-many times bigger and more profitable than the much-celebrated Fintech as many VC bet (and hope).

On the other hand, we have to do a more articulated and complex exercise. First of all, we must realise that ageing and the parallel extension of our life expectations are two related phenomena that put us before people, individuals, citizens and – of course – consumers.

At its heart, human beings have a set of fundamental needs and wants: physical health, mental wellbeing, safety and security, achieving meaningful purposes, connection to loved ones. These are age-independent needs translated by each of us according to our own values and desires. They are the needs and desires translated into marketing strategies and commercial offers by the brands of all industries, not only those of health or care. These are the needs and desires that fill the shelves with colourful packaging, glittering car showrooms, e-commerce products just a click away.

If we don’t understand this, if we don’t involve the small and big brands of all sectors – from fashion to automotive, furniture to entertainment – to imagine narratives, languages and offers which meet the diversity of desires (not just the needs) of these unique individuals, then we are perhaps only doing a nice “innovation make-up” operation, good for some investors, but less pervasive into society and its inequalities that can never really maximise the government’s vision of a grand challenge.

A challenge that is not only dedicated to an ageing society but is dedicated, in reality, to all of us. Because that ageing society is nothing but our society and all the population that lives in it.

It is us. No one excluded.