The Business of Aging: Opportunities in design communications

As usual with events at MaRS, the conference on The Business of Aging was the confluence of different strands, with the hopeful search for solutions to the big questions bringing together leaders from diverse sectors. In attendance were the WHO and International Federation on Aging on one hand representing the social and civic areas, GE, ICT developers and scientists, as well as representatives of the Ontario government, a US-based business/design lab and a highly-informed and involved audience. It was a social- and venture-driven conference looking for a movement.

I saw a room full of like-minded individuals who are all looking at the same issues through the different lenses of their areas of expertise. The variety of experience presented the space to open up between the disciplines for new ways of doing things, new ah-ha moments. My moments were found through my creative lens, in the way I see the connections between things. Here are my thoughts and observations on the conference and where the opportunities are in design communications:

How to engage the public

This was a recurring issue I saw as a huge barrier for organizations and companies regarding aging issues. A few points were clear to me:

  • Aging is not perceived to be a good thing. It happens to other people and no one wants to talk about it until they have to deal with it. At which point people are generally in crisis mode.
  • Aging is just NOT aspirational. Can a campaign fix that? It isn’t Freedom 55, it’s a lot of choice with less mobility and access as age becomes an issue. And how to reach those who become alienated and those who care?


This is a huge area as there are so many tech-based solutions that fix problems for the aged. There are a lot of barriers though:

  • Old people don’t want to be identified by their age. So devices should be marketed for issues, not the demographic. These people are all as distinct in their worlds and communities as they were when they were younger and want to be treated as such. Products and services developed for older people should target the what not the who, so the demographic is invisibly implicit in communications.
  • ICT solutions need to be marketed as concepts and NOT as tech solutions. Technology sells to a younger generation. My mother, when I emailed her during a tech discussion, answered me: “Thank you for your note from the conference. However, my experience is that, most of the time, simple intelligence and respect are more important than technology.” What she says could fit as a line about tone and manner in any creative brief for a product or service for the aging.I see some amazing ICT solutions at MaRS to help the aging but increasingly I think the target is the children of aging parents. To engage older people, technology has to be presented as the how-it-makes-my-life-better story to get their interest. Technology itself is a paradoxically alienating concept for the aged, even for parents like mine who are online and email.
  • Much support for the aged is provided in a public health platform and introducing new products and solutions is challenging in this environment, which is geared to process rather than innovation. One solution for ICT products for the aged might be to reach audiences through ISP and other service providers, through advertising included with monthly statement mailings, for example, from trusted sources, to break through the barrier and reach the target.
  • As Jane Barratt, John Beard and others noted, aging is not a disease. Meaning that, in communications, it’s important in connecting with the aged and those making decisions to focus on the positive and aspirational aspects rather than the things that go wrong.
  • Public awareness as a barrier to progress was a recurring theme: Apply the structure of the conference to a social activist body that includes people involved in innovative work for the aged in the public and private areas. Include creative people, who often see non-disciplinary points of intersection.
  • The relationship between business and public policy is important. Businesses have to be engaged and public policy needs to reflect the reality of the aged. The line connecting government, society and industry needs to include the agenda of the aged. Describing and demonstrating the goals will help move the needle on public opinion to create change.

Campaignable ideas:

Issue-driven campaigns that use stories of existing work (for instance, the great examples shown at the conference in speaker presentations and product demonstrations) are inspiring and aspirational.  If I were to develop a campaign around the issues of aging, it would be the subtext of the conference:

  1. Life is good and we need to support older people so they can live their lives as well as they wish.
  2. Life is good and it’s going to last longer than you think, so plan now to have a good time in that part of your life and live well.

Other thoughts:

sLab graduate students from OCAD, were working on projects throughout the conference, gathering questions and thoughts from participants. It would have been great to see these culled and edited and presented as concepts wrapping up the conference.