As cities around the world move into an era of Smart city planning and implementation, one of the key challenges is meeting the needs of an increasingly aging population. Currently 8.9% of the world’s population is aged 65 and over, a figure that is predicted to reach 16% by 2050. In areas such as mobility, healthcare and community services, technological innovation will play a pivotal role in upgrading homes and the urban environments in which an increasing elderly population will live.
While there is some overlap with the needs of other groups, such as those with limited mobility or impaired sight, the needs of the elderly differ slightly. However, as the World Health Organization acknowledges in its Age-Friendly Cities Checklist, it’s worth noting that many of the items on the wish list also improve urban life for the general population.
Solutions vary from the high-tech, to the simple and often an ingenious combination of the two. Governments around the world are beginning to bring in stricter planning regulations, as Singapore and the EU have recently done regarding accessibility, but in reality there remains much room for innovation in this sector. Many cities are embracing the notion of the Smart City, offering opportunities via subsidies, initiative schemes, and focus groups that can assist in planning, implementation and trials of new ideas.
Aside from physical measures, several cities such as Taipei, Barcelona, Malmö and Mexico City have focused resources on lessening the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) divide that can prevent the elderly from accessing smart solutions by developing Digital Literacy plans aimed at the elderly. Aside from mobility and accessibility, such plans can help elders to master simple computer skills which increase their independence, opening up new lines of communication to people that may otherwise be isolated.
An interesting side effect of Digital Literacy plans can be seen in Taiwan where teaching people over 55 how to make simple memes has resulted in a flourishing hobby of creating ‘Good Morning’ or ‘Wishing you a Peaceful Day’ memes which are then spread over messaging apps such as Line, or Whatsapp. Although this may seem minor, to the elders who make, receive, or pass on the messages it provides a simple way to creatively stay in touch with family members and peers, and thus reduce possible feelings of isolation or loneliness.
Another vital contribution to mental and physical health is the ability to navigate the city independently. No matter how well city planning has been carried out, this is a constant challenge for those with limited mobility, or even just those getting on a bit. Knowing there are benches to rest a while along the way greatly improves the chances of the elders walking more, and further. Another key factor is the availability of accessible toilets. In some cities perhaps the incline of the street is a factor, or the presence of steps, uneven paving or building sites that sprawl out across pavements forcing pedestrians to step into a narrow walkway.
Access Map Seattle is an example of a collaborative map which as well as tracking the most appropriate route for a pedestrian’s needs based on known factors such as kerb ramps or path width, also allows users to input real time information on temporary obstructions. In the future such an app could also take advantage of IoT connectivity, cameras or sensors to update such information, or offer advice in regard to the closest public toilet or bench. Crucially it’s about helping older members of society feel confident that they need not stay within the confines of their immediate neighborhood. Localized Air Quality Warnings from IoT systems such as smart lampposts or smart benches could also be incorporated to help the elderly avoid venturing out on particularly smoggy days.
Various applications developed for those with limited vision can also serve the elderly. For example, apps that can use AI to recognize products held up while shopping or to describe the surrounding environment can help keep elders independent for longer. Blindsquare is an app that is designed to help the visually impaired navigate cities through describing the environment, warning of intersections, providing directions and recommending possible places of interest – services that prove useful for the elderly.
Smart traffic lights can also recognize elders when they arrive at pelican crossings and adjust the time allocated to ensure that they have adequate time to cross. In Singapore a system is has been developed where tapping a card can give elders up to thirteen seconds more green man time. Countries such as the Netherlands have trialed pre-registering with an app, so no action is needed by the user.
Safe, clean and timely public transport solutions are also key to promoting independent city navigation. Long-term trials in the UK showed that free bus passes lessened depression among the over 65s as the cost barrier was removed. Once again, it is often the simple things that make the biggest difference to the elderly deciding that something is suitable. For example, camera systems on buses can help drivers on crowded vehicles ensure that the elderly are safely seated before restarting travel, improving their comfort level and confidence in public transport.
As well as considering barrier free access, such as the installation of chair lifts or platforms and elevators, some interesting ‘Last Mile’ solutions may also have implications for elderly mobility. ACCEL is designed to ease travel beyond public transportation hubs by the use of technology somewhat similar to moving walkways, or travelators you might encounter in an airport. In the case of ACCEL, overlapping pallets which can slow to standstill at the point of entry and then increase speed to up to two meters per second. Users simply stand and rest as the system propels them along using a system of linear motors and magnets.
While the system is aimed at providing seamless and rapid commuter travel, for the elderly it may allow them to complete tasks such as grocery shopping without needing to consider the weight of shopping on the walk home, or feel confident that they could manage a small case for a weekend away without having to resort to using a taxi for the last mile of travel.
Another fertile area for improving elderly access is in the use of smart digital signage that can detect when an elderly person is viewing a sign, adapting the font size and layout to make the information easier to read and digest. This can help both keep the elderly in the loop with upcoming community events, and increase their confidence of navigating new spaces and venues knowing that their needs will be served.
It’s clear that as the populations of many countries shift toward an aging society, advances in AI, IoT and other technologies will be integral to adapting urban life to the needs of the elderly.
Written by Phoebe Cassidy, writer and long-term resident of Taipei, Taiwan.
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