30 Years of Gerontechnology: Origins of an Innovation Journey

Contrary to what present-day quick screen-shot commentaries may suggest, great ideas don’t just pop up suddenly, fully packaged as catchy trends with fancy futuristic names. Great ideas emerge from the curiosity of a questioning observer, who identifies genuine human problems that want for solving, or serves an unmet need in the market. Sometimes the process moves slowly. Diligently researched, great ideas incubate and breed through a diverse fusion of thinking minds.

Often great ideas grow over time into movements, and at best, as we see is more frequently the norm, these movements develop into new inter-disciplinary professional fields of endeavour. Such is the case with the field of Gerontechnology.

Originator of that term Jan A.M. Graafmans writes that in 1988 he was part of a research team in Eindhoven University of Technology, “that started an effort to develop a program of research and education in gerontechnology aiming at further integration of engineering sciences with those disciplines already involved in aging studies.” You can read more here in his paper – The History and Incubation of Gerontechnology.

So the story goes, the incubation actually began in 1984 with the visit to the university from a social worker. The Dutch government wanted to “facilitate collaboration between health and welfare workers and engineers, architects and industrial designers”, with the end result to “create a better quality of living environment for aging and aged people, supporting them to live an independent life of their own choice and for as long as possible.”

In fact, it can be noted, as written in the 2009 publication Defining Gerontechnology for R&D Purposes, the seeds of gerontechnology go back further than 1988, windblown from the 1970’s, “when engineers, industrial designers and gerontologists recognized the need for a conceptual framework.” Perhaps that was the wind that wafted over Eindhoven.

Gerontechnology in a longevity marketplace

Slow forward through the 1990’s, this inter-disciplinary movement quietly established itself and formed its own professional association – the International Society for Gerontechnology (ISG) and since 2001 it has published its own quarterly Gerontechnology Journal. Fast forward to this year in Florida, May 2018 marks the 11th ISG World Conference of Gerontechnology.

If you poke around the conference website, you will see how broadly the realm of gerontechnology has unfolded around this field, from its academic and research origins, through to direct applications in a commercial market. Indicative of that progression, one of the keynote speakers is Mary Furlong, who in the USA is considered to be a leading authority on the longevity marketplace.

A Canadian keynote contributor is, Alex Mihailidis, Scientific Director at AGE-WELL “Canada’s Technology and Aging Network”. He will no doubt showcase some of the work being done by what they call their “Crosscutting Activity Teams”. In 2016, I heard Mihailidis speak and what he did was distill the message, that disruptive innovation forces us to think differently, and to paraphrase him, in a world where technology development moves at warp speed, we can’t be incremental in developing technologies for aging if we are to transform the market.

Yet it is misguided to think that gerontechnology in a longevity marketplace is built around “a recently constructed buzzword currently rolling around Silicon Valley”, as Wendi Burkhardt, contributing writer to Forbes magazine remarks in her quick screen-shot piece – The Next Hottest Thing In Silicon Valley: Gerontechnology (Sept.20, 2016.) It is not the next hottest thing and it is not just happening in Silicon Valley.

Accessible technologies & an inter-generational benefit

Now full circle, thirty years on from those early origins of Graafmans and his team, the point is – we are now at warp speed with technology development and the market for gerontechnology is a progression in full possibility mode, and it’s global.

As an avid follower of technology and its intersection with aging and longevity, last year I invested in a marvelous tome of 24 collected papers compiled by editor, Sunkyo Kwon – Gerontechnology: Research. Practice and Principles in the field of Technology and Aging (2017). Numerous case studies in this book highlight a range of technologies (some already very easily obtained) applied to specific “social contexts from the perspective of interpersonal relationships” (Kamin, Lang & Kamber – Chapter 3)

In addition to the opening chapter by Graafmans, the other twenty three break down in very clear ways how this interdisciplinary field has proven its direct influence on the original intent in the Netherlands case – to help create a better quality of living environment for aging and aged people.  

It should also be acknowledged, that these technologies are for the aid of everyone at an age, who are for example in a caregiving role. As is said in the vision of the International Society for Gerontechnology, it works “toward the realization of a society fully served by technology that is as accessible to ageing people as it is to people in younger generations.”


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