Turning the Silver Challenge into a Golden Opportunity

Frans De Bruïne
Frans De Bruïne

Mr. de Bruïne, why has the EU launched a special action plan “Ageing Well in the Information Society”?

De Bruïne: We all know that the average age of our population is rising. Life expectancy in Europe has increased from 55 in 1920 to 80 today. The number of people aged above 65 will rise from 75 million in 2005 to 135 million in 2050; almost one third of the population. First of all this is a success for our health and social systems, and a result of research and technological innovation. But it also poses significant challenges: to sustain the level of service provided by these health and social systems, to make sure that the silver generation contributes with their experience to the economy and society, to make sure our industry benefits from this potentially huge market, the wealth of older people in Europe amounts to over 3000 billion Euros, and above all, to make sure that when people get older they have a good quality of life.

Europe has the means to meet these challenges, and above all, to do so with information and communication technologies. We also have excellent health and social care systems, and a strong ICT industry. And we have – at least potentially – a large home market: almost 500 million citizens of Europe. But there are still barriers: lack of awareness, fear of innovation, fragmented rules and regulations. Hence this action plan, to overcome the barriers.

What are the reasons why there has been so little information technology specifically for older citizens up until now?

De Bruïne: Over the years many experiments have been done, but often they have remained on a small scale. What are the reasons for this? First, those that should have provided the larger-scale investment such as care providers often hesitated to invest in innovation. They themselves may lack the necessary scale, or their service chain is too fragmented, or they are – in my view wrongly – believing that innovation is not part of their business. Second, there is still a lack of understanding of the needs of older people. Why not involve them much more directly in the design of new products and services? In Finland there was a huge response when older people were invited to give ideas for improving mobile services for living independently. And third, there is a lack of inclusive design in the mainstream industry, that is to say catering for the needs of older people in the basic design of general purpose products. As a result, providing more specialised solutions for older people either becomes more expensive than need be, or such products simply never appear on the market. Finally, older people have so far been a bit too timid in expressing their needs and wishes.

Fortunately the landscape is changing, not the least due to initiatives such as the Silver Economy of Germany and the Netherlands, that promotes innovations aimed at this market segment. And now that many of the larger companies in the information and communication field, from consumer electronics to mobile communications, understand a new market is ready to be taken, they take inclusive design to heart.

What can the EU program do to rectify the situation?

De Bruïne: One of the roles of European level action is to make the issue part of the political debate, to raise awareness and to build common strategies. Our action plan therefore builds upon emerging interests and initiatives. We can bring them together at European level and thereby amplify their impact. We can help to fund large scale pilots to try out user acceptance and cost effectiveness. We also investigate internal market barriers in rules and regulations and if needed propose to remove them. And finally, we support risk sharing in joint research agendas, which has led to one billion Euro of investment in Research and Development. This investment will come, firstly, from the 7th EU Framework Programme on Research and development, which includes an action line on ICT for independent living and inclusion. Secondly, investment will come from the initiative on Ambient Assisted Living the Commission has recently proposed on research in ICT for independent living of elderly people. This will have not only EU and industry funding, but also funding from the participating countries, EU Member States and associated countries. This research initiative of 17 European countries has a time horizon of two to three years. This also makes it more attractive for small and medium sized companies, yet having the potential to develop solutions that can be provided throughout Europe and are interoperable, having larger critical mass by working together. This new initiative also adds value in that it is about applied research, close to the market deployment stage and meeting local needs.

To benefit from new technology, older people must first have access to it. However, only ten percent of those over 65 are familiar with the internet. How can this be improved?

De Bruïne: Often today, the technology is still too difficult for older people to use. This can be because of minor physical handicaps like stiff fingers or lower vision. But also because a lot of the technology is really not easy to understand – and not only for older people! So the ICT industry can and must do a lot more to improve usability and accessibility for all. European research is there to help in this.

We are also aware that Internet training is important, and much more of that can be provided. For formal training, a European Computer Driver Licence is one possibility. Also important is informal training, by neighbours, family, friends, and why not, by grandchildren or other younger people. Governments and industry can do a lot to stimulate and support digital literacy training, for example by providing funding and expertise for training initiatives in local centers, stimulating on the job training for older workers and making training material more readily available. At a Ministerial Conference in Riga in June 2006, Ministers of the more than 30 participating countries agreed to reduce the digital literacy gap by 50 percent by 2010.

What are the most important areas in which digital technology can improve the lives of older people?

De Bruïne: The action plan identifies three areas. First the home environment: allowing people to live independently and healthily at home for longer, for example by using personal health monitoring like telemedicine from home, wearable systems for monitoring and diagnosis of individuals having a chronic disease, systems that can prevent someone from falling and in the future perhaps also in-house robotics. The second area is the social community: active social participation, with personal communication solutions including video, accessible online shopping and entertainment, assisted navigation in transport and in public spaces so that it is easier to find your way around. And third the work place: actively supporting older people at work, with more accessible computers and communication systems or collaborative work solutions that allow people to combine their office and home life.

Will only financially well-off older people benefit from new technologies?

De Bruïne: Many solutions are already possible today, based on rather simple and inexpensive technology. Moreover, in many countries there is some form of social security or health support so that financial assistance is possible. But the real break-through will come when the silver market is recognised as a true market, providing economies of scale in Europe and worldwide, thanks to fewer barriers and raised awareness. Many more products and solutions will become affordable for older consumers when “ageing well” becomes a consumer-driven market in its own right. This will be the best guarantee for continued innovation and financial sustainability.

How can the program relieve the burden on social security systems in the EU states?

De Bruïne: It is important to realise that this is not about ICT alone – full savings will only be achieved if there is also organizational change, for example cooperation between social and health care workers or between ICT companies and service providers. A large benefit will come from avoiding hospitalization and institutionalization. For example, the UK’s West Lothian Authority introduced intelligent home technologies for monitoring and assisting elderly people, and reduced hospitalisation from an average of 57 days to nine days, and on average lowered annual costs per person from 32,218 Euros to 10,505 Euros. In Germany it is estimated that by introducing mobile monitoring services hospitals could save up to 1.5 billion Euros annually.

How will the one billion Euros investment for research be distributed, and how can IT companies get involved in the program?

De Bruïne: These funds are always issued on a competitive basis: Different consortia of industry partnerships, including user organizations, public authorities and universities, will compete against each other. They have to submit their projects at fixed moments in time for an independent evaluation. The competition is fierce, as the area of ageing well and ICT has a tremendous interest. To illustrate: our most recent call, which closed in May received 156 proposals having a total value of 520 million Euros. Companies and other organizations that are still interested to participate should consult the website http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/einclusion.

Where do you think there will be concrete competitive benefits for the European IT industry?

De Bruïne: With such a potentially large market of hundreds of millions of people in Europe and worldwide: Europe’s IT industry can benefit in many ways. For example Europe has excellent IT and health expertise; companies are now strategically positioning themselves in ICT and health fields, bringing in also pharmaceutical expertise; there are a host of services that come with these developments. Also Europe has leaders in personal alarm systems, whose field will be greatly widened by better in-house and outdoor communication and information technologies. Europe is a leader in mobile communications; increasing usability will open up the market of older people and bring important benefits for the population at large. There are many strong areas of European ICT that we can build on. However we should not be complacent. Others, outside Europe, are also targeting the same markets.

Are there similar initiatives in other countries or regions, for example in the United States or Asia?

De Bruïne: Definitely, since demographic ageing is a global phenomenon. The USA and Japan, and also now China, inspire us in many ways. In the USA for example innovation is high, partially because more care services are privately based. Also, the strength of their older people’s organizations and their active engagement with the ICT industry are an inspiration for Europe. In Japan there are most interesting initiatives in smart homes and assisted navigation, for example GPS and smart tags (RFID) have been used at the Aichi World Expo in the city of Nagoya. We are working actively with our international partners and will continue to support such collaboration as part of the action plan.

By 2020, 25 percent of the population will be over 65. What is your vision of the lives of older people in the information society?

De Bruïne: For a long time we seemed to want to forget about old people – life seemed to be over upon retirement. Our digital society of 2020 should enable people to live an ever more fulfilling life when getting older, in their work, in their community, and with family and friends in their own home – anywhere in Europe. To summarize it in one sentence: Let us exploit the potential of ICT to turn the silver challenge into a golden opportunity for Europe.