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Rethinking Intergenerational Design

Ken Smith May 28, 2018

Even those of us working on designing for 100-year lives can fall prey to the biases that are part of our everyday culture.

Such is the case with one of the seemingly least ageist terms around: “Intergenerational Design.” The basic idea of intergenerational design is to create products and services that work for all ages. While this is a completely necessary idea, there is often an underlying assumption about this approach.

The “normal” process is young or working-age designers observing the habits of older people and children and using what they find to create products that serve and delight. It is often viewed as accommodating in nature–finding ways to make everyday things work for the “other” population.

But the term can have another meaning completely. Rather than studying the perceived needs of older or younger generations as an outsider, it is possible to look to people of all ages for what they know and how they can contribute. This approach offers a number of benefits:

  • It moves designers away from a “me” and “them” approach and reduces the chance that designs are based on misconceptions about the target population.
  • It taps into a broader base of knowledge by including the experiences of youth, working age adults, and older individuals.
  • It pulls the older population back into the discussion as active team members, adding purpose to their activities and not wasting their skills as a resource for society.

This meaning of intergenerational design is at its core a proactive approach to anti-ageism. Rather than only calling out bad actors and social norms (a very worthy goal), intergenerational design can further the progress of building a world that is age-agnostic and where continued purpose and contribution is the norm.

The Stanford Center on Longevity Design Challenge will attempt to advance this progress on a small scale. The 2018-2019 Challenge, which invites students from any university in the world to submit designs addressing a longevity-related topic, will ask designers to tackle the theme “Contributing at Every Age: Designing for Intergenerational Impact.”

We hope to see designs that find ways to bring generations together for activities as varied as work, play, travel, art, political engagement and service. For the first time, the Challenge will also require that teams include contributors from multiple generations as opposed to just college-age students.

With this experiment, we hope to include both meanings of “Intergenerational Design” and draw attention to the roles that people of all ages can take in designing products and services that improve life for people of all ages.

The long arc of history may come to view the 20th century as an anomaly for older people, when they became socially separated from society. It may be that our cultures simply have not kept up with the astounding rate of progress that allows more people to live 80 to 100 years. But as a greater and greater portion of society becomes comprised of older people, separation and inactivity will no longer be viable options. We will need everyone’s contribution.

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Ken Smith

Ken Smith directs the Mobility Division at the Stanford Center on Longevity, as well as the Center’s annual Longevity Design Challenge. His work spans health/wellness, technology, design and aging in place.

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