In Tech-Savvy Culture, Where's the App for Aging?

In Tech-Savvy Culture, Where's the App for Aging?

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Technology has changed our lives in ways we never imagined – but how will it advance a healthy and acting aging? Aside from a small but growing group of articles cautioning that “connectivity is harming our brains,” journalists and spokespeople from all fields now celebrate everything tech.

As the world undergoes a far-reaching social, political and economic transformation brought about by the aging of the population, the question that ought to be asked is: How can technology enable new paths of aging that are more humane, active, productive and financially sustainable? 

In other words: Where’s the app for that?

Unfortunately, our tech-savvy culture is ignoring – at this moment in time, anyway – the idea of how technological innovation can transform aging into a foundation for growth and shared prosperity. For all the “progressive” and “visionary” mythos used to lionize Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, the kids in California are pretty far behind the curve on this one.

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Yet during all the iPhone 5 hysteria this week, policy wonks, academics and business leaders met in Tokyo to ask the right questions about how technological innovation can write a better future for society through the lens of an historical and unprecedented older society in the 21st century. 

At Waseda University in Tokyo, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) held a joint conference entitled, “Anticipating the Special Needs of the 21st Century Silver Economy: From Smart Technologies to Services Innovation.” It may be less sexy than Siri’s new ability to speak turn-by-turn directions to the new sushi place downtown, but it’s at least as far-reaching. The fate of aging populations will parallel  and determine  the fate of the rest of society, and technological innovation will be the game-changer.

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At the joint OECD/APEC conference, supported by the Japanese government itself, which is facing the challenges of having the oldest society on the planet,  Intel discussed its “end user strategy,” arguing that this approach is leading the company to create technologies that aging populations want and need: Intel’s research has revealed what the “silver market” wants and needs. This is huge for a tech company, since we’re now addressing ways to keep “seniors” engaged in the work and the hobbies that make their lives rich and productive.

Dr. Ruth Finklestein of the New York Academy of Medicine joined up with Verizon Executives to discuss how smart phones with easy-to-read icons can transform the daily lives of older adults. Finklestein – head of the Age-Friendly New York City initiative – and Verizon showed how the smartphone can help older adults remain independent well into later life, something the headlines for the iPhone 5 failed to comment on. 

After dozens of insightful, promising talks about the developments in technology and the potential they hold for enabling older people to remain at the heart of social and economic life, the conference shared a call to action: “We must innovate in order to mitigate the risks of aging... But it is not just about new technologies. It is also about social and organizational innovation and, more importantly, about better leveraging the technologies we already have. Alignment needs to happen between governance, finance, policy, business, and technology development to achieve appropriate innovative solutions.” 

The OECD gets it, which is a sign this topic is now moving to the center of our global agenda. Next step is for the G-8 and G-20 in their 2013 confabs to connect the dots of population aging, fiscal sustainability and economic growth.

The iPhone 5 is an extraordinary development – but we’ve got to collaborate so that our miraculous technologies are used for greater purposes than apps to order pizzas. Technological innovation can turn population aging into the 21st century’s greatest success story. 

Executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is also managing partner at High Lantern Group and a fellow at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College.