Invention vs. Innovation: Technology and the Future of Aging

Article excerpt

The 2005 White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA) was a successful agenda-setting event for aging and technology. Presenting a technology pavilion for the first time, the WHCOA framed what many in the still nascent "gerontechnology" field have known: that the appropriate use of technology holds incredible power, promise and potential to address many of the demands of aging in the United States.

Information technology, in particular, offers new capacity to manage health and improve safety. On display were robots to monitor elders' well-being, interactive devices to remind them to take their medicine, novel uses of everyday consumer electronics to connect older people to caregivers, and numerous systems to detect and alert others of their loved one's safety and security. The WHCOA is designed to set the agenda on aging for the next decade, and clearly technology will be a part of that agenda and the lives of older people. However, before the field of aging becomes lost in the whirr of countless solutions in search of a problem, I believe that this is a critical time to take a policy pause and ask what was not shown at the conference-and what we want from technology.


The global aging and technology marketplace is high on invention but low on innovation. Innovation-putting ideas into practical use-requires technological invention, but also calls for the creation of a compelling, comprehensive vision of a better future, a sustainable economic model and the acknowledgement that with all new ideas come new problems.

Just as the personal computer alone did not create the magic of the Internet, the availability of many devices and related applications does not constitute the full potential of researchers in universities, government laboratories and businesses to transform the lives of older people and caregivers. The United States stands before the confluence of demands from a new generation of older Americans and the availability of advanced technology. Together, these elements present the potential to age differently and better.

Although we are seeing an explosion in new technology, American society is working with an old definition of aging. Definitions do more than describe-they establish both what is important and the acceptable range of alternatives. Technologists can be powerful agents of change, providing tools for new ways to live. However, the current definition of aging limits the power of technology. In particular, even though illness and disability affect older adults disproportionately, and are an important target of innovation, they should not be the only focus.

A new vision of a vibrant and productive aging population must be presented to technology researchers, corporations and policymakers-a compelling image of how we might work, play, move, learn, care, find meaning and do all those things that are critical to quality living, not just to healthy aging. Failure to articulate multiple dimensions of longevity risks a national failure to define a complete set of requirements under which technologists can invent new ways to engage and empower older adults as lifelong contributors to society.

Innovation is about where we want to be and how to get there, not simply managing where we are today. Many look to the disruptive demographics of the aging boomers to change the look of old age. However, American society cannot wait for the largest generation to gray before creatively exploiting technology. Technology in service to longevity must become prominent on the public agenda with a commanding sense of urgency and investment today if we are to see real innovations for tomorrow. Even the fast-paced world of technology takes time-current innovations in our homes, in our cars and in our pockets are based on foundations laid by research years ago.


No matter how complete or compelling a vision may be, it must include practical economics. …