Older and wiser?

Dr David Arkell

The population is ageing rapidly, yet services and products for the silver economy are fragmented and in their infancy. Dr David Arkell is running the SEAS 2 Grow research project, that is looking at how the silver economy can be supported and streamlined.

A friendly-looking robot called Yumii. An app that lets relatives and carers know when an elderly person has last been visited. A brilliantly-designed frame that helps people to get into and out of a chair – and to walk.

These are just three of the innovations so far discovered by the Silver Economy Accelerating Strategies (SEAS) 2 Grow project. As our University’s lead on the project, Dr David Arkell, Director of Business Development at the Faculty of Business and Law, explains, it is a collaboration examining “a problem and an opportunity” facing society.

“We’re living longer,” he says. “That’s a good thing. But state resources are already stretched.”

Of course, along with the challenges of an ageing population come innovation opportunities. And it’s a Europe-wide issue. So the SEAS 2 Grow group has been assembled with the aim of mapping the ‘silver economy’ – a phrase coined by the European Union to describe the products and services in a currently ill-defined market for the wellbeing of the senior citizen.

The aim, says David, is to create “conditions whereby entrepreneurs and SMEs can understand that marketplace better. And by understanding the marketplace, prosper.”

This also produces opportunities for smarter, more efficient means of providing care for the elderly – critically, allowing older people to live independently for longer – in the face of diminishing state resources across Europe. The project will also focus on ‘accelerating’ (testing and supporting into the marketplace) selected products orservices identified as providing innovative ways of addressing these needs.

An example of the kind of product with potential to make a real difference is being developed by ARU’s Professor Richard Aspinall in the Faculty of Medical Science, with partners in the medical industry sector. A very simple sensor can be fitted to a toilet seat to monitor urine for urinary tract infections (UTI). Any changes can then be communicated, via text message, for example, to a relative or carer.

Catching infections early

This could potentially prevent a “catastrophic series of events” such as a fall caused by dizziness brought on by the UTI, events “not only not good for the person involved, but also the wave of costs, from family disruption to NHS costs and rehabilitation”.

The SEAS 2 Grow project involves partners from four European countries, including Anglia Ruskin University in the UK. David’s own background both in academia and as the founder of SmartLIFE™, connecting construction students, industry and professionals across three European cities, makes him ideally placed to grapple with the project’s issues and opportunities.

There are two main aims. First, to produce a comprehensive market study – “a live map which shows the innovations and ideas that are working in different contexts, and, crucially, the state of the public and private market opportunities across the partners’ regions.” An SME can, for instance, cross-reference its own idea or area to see how similar products already in the markets are working, seek collaborations, and apply for innovation support from the project.

Testing panels of 50 people

Secondly, each country’s testing expertise will be pooled, and use ‘living laboratories’, with senior citizens testing products and services before getting them into the marketplace. “It’s ‘let’s find out by doing’. But it’s not a bubble for academic research,” David enthuses. “Rich information for policy-makers will flow into academic papers and further innovation research.” Each of the four countries is putting together testing panels of around 50 senior citizens: about 200 in total across the project.

In January regional workshops took place in Cambridge and Lille, consulting stakeholders. David tells of a workshop at ARU with “a daughter caring for a mother who was in a wheelchair and had slight dementia”. He insists: “The mother was fully taking part in the discussion and in fact, because of her experiences, was speaking the most coherently and authoritatively”.

With this kind of multi-country approach, the different outlook of partners also offers a useful chance to cross disciplines, and cross sectors, from academia to business. “Your view of the world is challenged: you’re disrupted by other cultures and other disciplines. Sometimes uncomfortable, but crucial new learning.”

And with five innovations already shortlisted for further testing and ‘acceleration’ into the marketplace, the project’s ultimate aim of “enabling people to live longer, healthy, enjoyable lives in their homes and communities” across Europe by boosting and supporting the silver economy is already one step closer to its goal.

Seas 2 Grow: five selected innovations

  • Familities (France): this mobile and web application helps families and carers to maximise support around elderly relatives and coordinate their visits and calls.
  • Yumii (France): an interactive (and friendly) voice-activated robot to help family, helpers and doctors communicate with senior citizens.
  • Entusie (Belgium): antibacterial underwear for urine incontinence sufferers.
  • Knowing Better is Caring Better (Sensar) (The Netherlands): intelligent software which learns the routines and behaviours of the elderly, and sends an alert when there is any change.
  • 2 in 1 Rise-up Walker (Belgium): a cleverly-designed all-in-one device that supports walking, mobility and rehabilitation.