The Future of Design: What makes a designer age-friendly?

Nov 30, 2015 | BLOG

By: Sophie Handler, Chair of the RIBA Working Group on Research and Ageing

This blog is one in a series of blogs on the Future of Ageing, published in the lead up to the ILC-UK Future of Ageing conference on the 24th November. To register to attend this conference, click here.

There are now over 256 designated Age-friendly cities across the world. From Liverpool to Manchester, New York City to Delhi each of these 256 cities is signed up, in theory, to the principles of the WHO global network of Age-friendly Cities and Communities, committed to practical action across its eight working domains.

But the rapid expansion of the Age-friendly Cities movement over the past five years in particular has not met with even levels of activity across the WHO global network. Even within those Age-friendly Cities that are active in implementing Age-friendly practices it is possible to see varying degrees of activity across the different Age-friendly domains.Within the domain of Outdoor Spaces and Buildings, in particular, the domain typically seen as the preserve of design activity, there has been a particularly limited number of initiatives tested out as yet – on-the-ground.

And yet, there is a growing appetite for more work in this area. Within the design and engineering world the last two years have seen mounting interest at professional level in thinking about the dynamics of ageing and urbanisation and the ways in which designers might respond to the shifting demographic trends within cities. Institutions like the Royal Institute of British Architects, Arups (the global engineering firm), have all started to respond to the agenda set by the Age-friendly Cities movement, using workshops, seminars and reports to start their own debate around the designer’s role in the creation of age-inclusive cities.

But while interest in this area grows, what do we actually mean by Age-friendly design? How do we as designers practice Age-friendly principles? And what, or rather who even constitutes an Age-friendly designer?

In conventional discussions around Age-friendly design there is usually a particular model of design practice that gets played out that operates along what is a conventional, problem-solving methodology within design practice more generally. This is a process that typically involves:identifying problems, ‘barriers’, needs; prototyping and designing solutions; making design recommendations; implementing design standards – working, in effect, to transform what is often termed a ‘resistant’ into a ‘supportive’ environment.

This kind of problem-solving design approach has resulted in the production of particular forms of Age-friendly design: universal standards and checklists, the design of Age-friendly objects – standardised features (the ‘Age-friendly bench’) that might be slotted into any Age-friendly City.

But this kind of design approach, often labeled under the banner of universal or inclusive design, tends to privilege design interventions that are universal and standardised (standardising) – i.e., interventions that do not need to account of the specifics of context or of difference. This kind of conventional design approach also tends to limit its focus to the impact that urban environments have on the physical body – i.e., playing into biomedicalised models of ageing where ageing is constructed as a physical problem to be somehow solved.

But what if Age-friendly design broadened out its remit, beyond a limited response to adapting environments to a baseline of physical needs through standards and standardised physical interventions?What if inclusive design were re-imagined as a practice that engages with the politics of social inclusion – and exclusion – and the socio-political dynamics and everyday experience of urbanisation as much as with the physical capabilities and limits of the body?

The Alternative Age-friendly Handbook, produced last year by MICRA (University of Manchester), Age-friendly Manchester (Manchester City Council) in collaboration with Age UK and the RIBA, is an attempt to describe the possibilities of this other way of doing Age-friendly design. It describes a number of alternative design responses and possible initiatives – and what their working methods might involve: temporary interventions; participative design processes; speculative What if?s, creating scenarios as a catalyst for re-imagining spaces; thinking about the idea of retrofitting spaces (as opposed to simply inserting new objects into spaces); making use of what already exists; designing for the flexible use of a given space – and, perhaps most importantly, making time and space for that process of mapping hidden experiences within the city, using these to inform designs and interventions that become context-specific. In this context, it is important to bear in mind that the Age-friendly designer is not simply a sole practitioner but a ‘relational practitioner’ – someone whose design practice involves working closely with others (older people in particular) and prioritising the production of those creative platforms and mechanisms that give older people the agency to re-imagine and re-design the Age-friendly city for themselves.

The designer Yanki Lee points out that designers trained in the arts are capable of identifying and working with phenomena that others find ephemeral, imaginative, and unstable for serious research. Crucially though, as she points out, they are also trained in reframing ideas rather than solving known problems. And it is this idea of reframing known problems (rather than simply problem-solving) that carries a particular value for re-thinking what Age-friendly design might mean and to ask what it is that creative practitioners, whether architects, artists, or designers, bring to our thinking around Age-friendly cities.

Sophie Handler
Chair of the RIBA Working Group on Research and Ageing

Sophie Handler

Chair of the RIBA Working Group on Research and Ageing

Sophie Handler is Chair of the RIBA working group on Research and Ageing and Research and Planning Officer for Age-Friendly Cities.