Design and Social Innovation in an Ageing Society

by Michela Cozza
0 comment
INCG, Critical Gerontology

Demographic change and caregiving are indisputable realities that concern all of us as human beings. For example, despite different chances of spending later years in good health and well-being that vary between countries, the popularity of the buzzword of “ageing actively” expresses a shared idea about the importance of rejecting ideas of dependency and institutionalization. In this respect, and although often overlooked, design is becoming increasingly important. Yet, designing for an aging population no longer means only thinking about safety and care in the home—older people also need design solutions to help them participate in the workforce, get around town, and convince a youth-centered society that they still have a lot to offer. Hence, who better than older people to design solutions that meet their expectations and needs?

What do we mean by design?

 “Today, the word design means many things” – Ezio Manzini explains – “The common factor linking varying definitions is service, and designers are engaged in a service profession in which the results of their work meet human needs” (2015, p. vii). For many years, design was inspired by the mass production doctrine of a “one size fits all” based on Dreyfuss’s book, The measure of man: human factors in design (1960). In this view, the concept of “human factor” relies on an understanding of the human being as passive, fragmented, de-personalized, and un-motivated individual. As such, it contrasts with ideas of people as “human actors” with personal objectives, aspirations, and agency (Bannon, 1991).

While mainstream design can be considered to disable and exclude many people by means of applying a normalization approach (Moser, 2000; Östlund, 2004), more progressive designers and design scholars are shifting their ways of working to include growing interest in user-centered approaches, strategies, and research methods for social integration and innovation (Boztepe, 2007; Manzini, 2015). This transformation is culture-related, and ranges from ideas such as that of “universal design” in the United States, to the European notions of “inclusive design” and/or “design for all”. Together, these approaches can contribute to developing a sustainable society, where all people and communities have the same possibilities to live well, that is, to be what they want to be, and do what they want to do (Manzini, 2009). In this sense, designers and researchers of design can play an important role in fostering sustainable growth by collaborating with users and other professionals to address social challenges such as demographic change. In turn, such transformations can then begin to have influence on the conceptual models and forthcoming practices of design.

Social Innovation

Here, many suggest the idea of social innovation as a means of improving design for older people. “Social innovation” relies on interactive modes of working and refers to “new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations. In other words, social innovations are innovations that are considered to be both good for society and which enhance society’s capacity to act” and solve a particular issue (Murray, Caulier-Grice & Mulgan, 2010, p. 3). This formal definition allows for an understanding that social innovation has always existed, but is now assuming unprecedented characteristics related to technological development, on the one hand, and an increasing quest for well-being for and among older people, on the other hand.

Trying to combine social innovation with design, Manzini (2015) has introduced the concept of “design for social innovation”. He defines it as “everything that expert design can do to activate, sustain, and orient processes of social change toward sustainability” (p. 62). In this way, social innovation also implies a change of the role played by design experts, whereby they should act as a craftspeople who consider their creativity and culture as tools to support the capability of other actors, and to design in a dialogic way (Sanders & Stappers, 2008). Here, there is work to be done to recognize such opportunities for social innovation in the field of aging, and to make these opportunities visible. The case of older people as co-designers is noteworthy and deserves attention because it exemplifies the need to shift the design mode, both in terms of form (i.e. language, terminology) (Palmore, 2000) and function (i.e. utility of solutions) (Mäirä et al., 2006). Such a meaningful turn is based on the idea, simple as well as often trivialized, that people are (and must consider themselves) the asset in the changing world.

In my research, I draw on principles of participation and co-design on ageing and technology (e.g. Cozza et al., 2017; 2018). Along with other colleagues of Mälardalen University, I work on welfare technology. The term is mainly used in Scandinavia and it refers to the technology used “to improve the services provided by the welfare society and make them more efficient” (Nordic Centre for Welfare and Social Issues, 2010, p. 7). The following figure illustrates one of our workshops aimed at engaging professional caregivers in sharing their knowledge on welfare technology and developing scenarios of possible collaboration.

Lego Serious Play workshop on collaborating on welfare technology (Mälardalen University, 2018).

In Sweden, welfare technology is limited to targeting older people in line with a more traditional assistive technology mindset. Despite being considered a leading one in welfare services, with a long tradition of participatory design, cooperation and users’ engagement are still far from being cooperative or systematically applied. Our research activities on welfare technology aims to strengthen the collaboration between different actors involved in designing, developing, and using technology-based care services. The active involvement of older people is key to our projects. Their experience, knowledge, and capabilities along with those of professionals in different fields and with different responsibilities contribute to set our research agenda, which is aimed to promote social innovation in welfare technology.

For more information see here and here.


  1. Bannon, L. (1991). From human factors to human actors. The role of psychology and human-computer interaction studies in systems design. In J. Greenbaum, & M. Kyng (Eds.), Design at work: Cooperative design of computer systems (pp. 25-44). Hillsdale: Lawrence Eribaum Associates.
  2. Boztepe, S. (2007). User value: Competing theories and models. International Journal of Design, 1(2), 55-63.
  3. Cozza, M., De Angeli, A., and Tonolli, L. (2017). Ubiquitous Technologies for Older People. Personal & Ubiquitous Computing 21 (3): 607-619.
  4. Cozza, M., Crevani, L., Hallin, A., and Schaeffer, J. (2018). Future Ageing: Welfare Technology Practices for our Future Older Selves. Futures, DOI: 10.1016/j.futures.2018.03.011
  5. Dreyfuss, H. (1960). The measure of man: human factors in design. New York: Whitney Library of design.
  6. Mäirä, F., Soronen, A, Koskinen, I., Kuusela, K., Mikkonen, J., Vanhala, J. & Zakrzewski, M. (2006). Probing a proactive home: challenges in researching and designing everyday smart environments. Human Technology, 2(2): 158-186.
  7. Manzini, E. (2009). New design knowledge. Design Studies, 30(1), 4-12.
  8. Manzini, E. (2015). Design, when everybody designs. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press.
  9. Moser, I. (2000). Against normalisation: Subverting norms of ability and disability. Science as Culture, 9(2), 201-240.
  10. Murray, R., Caulier-Grice, J., & Mulgan, G. (2010). The open book of social innovation. London: The Young Foundation and Nesta.  
  11. Nordic Centre for Welfare and Social Issues (2010). Focus on welfare technology: Velferdsteknologi_eng.pdf
  12. Östlund, B. (2004). Social science research on technology and the elderly – Does it exist? Science Studies, 17(2), 44-62.
  13. Palmore, E. (2000). Ageism in gerontological language. The Gerontologist, 40(6), 645. 
  14. Sanders, E. B.-N., & Stappers, P. J. (2008). Co-creation and the new landscapes of design. CoDesign: International Journal of CoCreation in Design and Arts, 4(1), 5-18.

You may also like

Leave a Comment