Understanding the Janus Face of Technology and Ageing: Implications for Older Consumers, Business Innovation and Society

Article excerpt


The convergence of technology and global ageing is driving new business opportunities, innovations in service delivery and the promise of a better life tomorrow for older adults and those who care for them. Despite its promise, technology has a Janus face introducing both new solutions as well as new problems. Successful development and integration of technology as a tool to transform global ageing into global opportunity requires that individuals, families, business and governments, at all levels, address key trade-offs: functionality versus complexity; service versus stigma; universal design versus universally dull; safety versus privacy; health versus dignity; availability versus equity; and lastly, high-tech versus high-touch.

Keywords: Technology - Global Ageing - Innovation - Technology Policy


Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, endings, looking forward and looking backward, future and past is often portrayed with two faces to capture his duality. Like Janus, technology has two faces. Technology is often perceived as a 'solution'. Generally, it is. New technology also introduces new political, ethical, economic and sometimes cultural dilemmas for society (Kelly 2010). The automobile, for example, revolutionized personal mobility. While vastly improving how and where we move, the car also reshaped our communities, contributed to pollution and introduced an entirely new type of public safety hazard (Flink 1976). For every future benefit promised by a new technology, there is a pull from the past, a cultural norm or a public policy that the 'new' challenges.

Ageing and Technology as a Convergent Opportunity

The convergence of ageing and technology has risen to the top of the agenda for many researchers, government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and corporations worldwide. While the creative application of technology has long been a means to extend life, it has only been in the last decade that the connection between technology and improving the quality of life has received significant attention.

Global ageing presents new demands and opportunities for technology development and innovation. The fastest growing segment of the population in industrialized economies spanning Australia, Europe, North America and parts of Asia are those who are 50 years old and older (United States (US) Census Bureau 2010). In 2006 in the US it was estimated there were 78 million-plus Baby Boomers all reaching 60 years of age (US Census Bureau 2006). In 2010, these Boomers are now turning 64 - and at the rate of one nearly every five and a half seconds1 (US Census Bureau 2006). In Europe alone, it is estimated that there are more walking frames and wheel chairs than baby carriages (United Nations 2010). Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and other Southeast Asian nations are also facing extreme ageing and population loss due to longevity gains and fertility declines.

While these economies are ageing, these older populations are also among the wealthiest and most demanding consumers in the world - expecting to live longer and to live better. And, since technology has been a part of their experience in youth, they are likely to look to technology to improve their lives in old age (Coughlin 1999).

Unprecedented ageing is occurring alongside unprecedented advances in technology. More than new devices, systems are being developed and commercialized to enable services and solutions to support older adults, families and formal caregivers.

For example:

* New materials for lighter-weight, stronger and intelligent clothing and structures;

* Advanced medical devices and molecules to better treat and manage disease;

* Robotic and autonomous systems to revolutionize everything from personal mobility to caregiving; and

* Information communications technologies to monitor and to motivate a wide range of behaviours improving safety, security, health and family support. …