Design for the new aged - sustainability, demographics, and infomatics

Presented at Catalyst ’97, University of Canberra

Karin Geiselhart

[then] PhD student Faculty of Communication University of Canberra


Much has been said about the problems which an ageing society presents, and the costs which will be imposed on the next generation. Similarly, the price following generations will pay for the environmental errors of today are, perhaps, uncountable. In a different vein, the opportunities of an information society for transforming society are said to be enormous, and yet seldom linked to the challenges of changing demographics or environmental stability.

This paper deals with the nexus between these three issues: an ageing population, ecological threat, and information technology. The first section deals with design issues relevant to the elderly, and some of the opportunities which a large pool of educated, affluent oldies present. The group of ‘baby boomers’ now moving into retirement in the developed world have benefited perhaps more than any other cohort from the generosity of the welfare state. As such, they will expect more, and expect to participate more, in decisions which affect them. The second section discusses the links between catering for this group of ‘New Aged’ and a broader picture of sustainable design, particularly for an urban setting. The needs of the elderly are closely compatible with the elements of sustainable design, especially when social sustainability is considered.

In the final section, the current dominant approach to information technology is outlined. The author argues that IT is used more for efficiency than for democratic development. Drawing on existing projects and projections, suggestions are made for better integrating the essential concerns which increasingly define our millennium mentality. Initiatives such as smart cities, community networks, and on-line information pooling are already making an impact on the decisions and designs which will determine the social, intellectual and environmental landscape of the critical decades to come.

Design for the New Aged - sustainability, demographics, and infomatics

A nexus for the millennium

One of the major forces that will shape the next century is demographics. Lester Thurow (1996) calls it one of the ‘tectonic’ plates which rub together, creating a friction which can only be released by tremendous upheaval. It is also becoming more evident that environmental change will be a key factor in the next century. If you add technological change to this pot, which brings with it the strong flavour of globalisation, you have a recipe for a soup which no one has yet tasted.

Information technology now has such a pervasive presence in our lives that we can easily overlook its role in creating a sustainable society. And because the structures influencing the use of computers and the Internet are generally determined elsewhere, we tend not to think about the design implications of these fundamental communication tools. Yet this is an important issue, because the underlying design philosophies being put in place now for information technology will largely determine our ability to change all other structures in the future.

This paper explores the nexus between these three issues: ecological threat and information technology, and their relation to an ageing population. The challenges presented by an increasing proportion of elderly are related to those of overall sustainability. Some of these issues are now inescapably linked to how we choose to apply new communication technologies. The case is developed here that eco-design solutions and technological infrastructure have the potential to achieve the greatest synergy if they explicitly acknowledge and adopt democratic design criteria. Sustainability, both social and ecological, is entwined with holistic and interactive use of information and communication technologies.

Ageing in Australia

We are still the lucky country - Australia’s baby boom was more of a plateau, and thus our population is ageing a bit more slowly than some of our Asian neighbours. Japan, for example, is experiencing a more intense escalation of its elderly population, exacerbated by an overall stability or slight decline in population.

Even so, the numbers of those aged 65+ will treble in Australia between 1991 and 2031 to 5.2 million. Our baby boom happened roughly between the end of World War Two in 1945 to approximately 1960. Thus, anyone currently approaching 40 can still be considered a baby boomer. Demographics are important not just for total numbers, but also in relation to the benefits, opportunities and problems which each group experiences. Just as one may be advantaged by living in an age of good neonatal care, a shift in any one of a number of factors could have adverse, and perhaps differential, consequences on any given cohort in the population.

There will also be a feminisation of the elderly, with about half as many men as women aged 85+ in 2031. Population will stabilise after about 2030, with more balanced proportions of the population in each age group. A more detailed picture of Australia’s ageing patterns is presented in McCallum and Geiselhart, (1996). Overall size of the population is another important consideration, dependent primarily on immigration rates in Australia, as the birth rate is dropping. That topic is beyond the scope of this paper. However, Flannery (1995) has suggested that between six and twelve million is the sustainable level for this continent.

These changing age patterns are already having an effect on social policy. The introduction of nursing home charges and the subsequent debate indicated ambivalent attitudes towards the elderly. Thurow (1996 p 104) has predicted that class welfare is likely to be redefined as young against the aged. Tensions are already appearing in the United States, where the government’s health insurance safety net is subsidised for all elderly, but means-tested for younger people.

A lucky generation

Australia is currently in a ‘Golden Period’ for planning, with sufficient numbers of workers to cushion policy changes and expenditures. We have several decades of good social planning, giving us an infrastructure of reasonably well-coordinated care with input from both government and community sectors. This can be further streamlined and modified over the coming decades, rather creating it from scratch, as is the case with many developing countries.

The middle aged, the baby boomers, have benefited from the very best of the welfare state and a vigorous post-World War Two economy. They received more education than their parents, often for free, and had jobs aplenty to choose from in their younger years. Many took advantage of inflation to build up real estate assets.

Those who rode the wave of prosperity will also relish the trend to early retirement. A substantial number of retirees will be financially independent, and will be free to pursue hobbies and interests. Their accumulated skills and energies are already becoming an important resource in maintaining the myriad activities that are part of the volunteer economy - the community organisers and grandparent brigade that help keep life manageable for the increasingly busy younger generations.

However, all will not be rosy for future retirees. Dependency on the Age Pension for at least partial income will be necessary for many who did not have access to superannuation until recently. This will include many women, who, as indicated, will predominate in older age groups. Overall costs to society will increase, as frailty and disease start to gnaw at the healthy lifestyles of the middle aged. Medical information and personal activism is a double-edged sword, as health care has many characteristics of a luxury good. Alternative treatments and early intervention strategies, such as physiotherapy and vitamin therapy, will strain public and private budgets in the coming decades. Much adjustment will be necessary to handle these issues equitably. And in today’s world of steady change, many other events may exacerbate this adjustment. One example, unforeseen by most just one year ago, is the possibility of deflation or global economic instability. Another issue, still sleeping quietly, is the liklihood of escalating oil prices as reserves become less accessible. (Fleay 1995)

Green Grannies?

Dealing with both the known and the unpredictable challenges of an ageing society will have to happen simultaneously with planning for a more sustainable future, as the oil issue illustrates. Luckily, these are not incompatible. All solutions, however, will be dependent on an accurate and integrated information flow. Financial planning, with its unmistakable global linkages, is just one aspect of this longer term big picture which will impact on the elderly’s retirement incomes.

Urban planning offers many other examples of the need for excellence in communication. The aged will require inexpensive housing which also does not isolate them from family and social networks. It should be modest in its requirements for energy and maintenance, and close to public transport. The greenhouse effect will be minimised, and intergenerational equity maximised, if the elderly can stroll down safe, shady streets to a local chemist, for example. If the alternative is expensive public solutions, or children driving around at lunchtimes to fill scripts, the choice seems clear. So-called market driven design, which only measures increases in resource use as a positive measure of economic activity, will give the wrong answers. Social outcomes need to be measured, evaluated, and communicated. The intensity of the crowded mall, as well as being intimidating for the elderly or disabled, conveys a set of values and assumptions about pace, scale, and interactivity.

Likewise, an over-emphasis on individuality, which emphasises independence without consideration for social interdependence, can be counterproductive. Clustered housing which encourages sharing resources and energies, from lawn mowers to child care, would have positive synergies far beyond the local neighbourhood.

On line and in time

A good information infrastructure can contribute to developing and managing sustainable lifestyles for the elderly. Benign surveillance, which monitors movement or heat electronically without an intrusive presence, can help the frail aged to remain in their own homes while providing quick assistance should it be needed. Telemedicine, as it evolves, could save unnecessary trips to doctors, and provide access to specialist services in remote areas. Already, diagnosis by computer is being trialed in some places. Smart buildings can make efficient use of energy and take some of the bother out of some routine functions, such as turning off lights or stoves for the absent-minded. But with all these applications, communication with users must come first, to avoid a nightmare scenario of simulation and surveillance. (Bogard 1996) The pressures and pace of change make it harder to get these possibilities into a social outcomes perspective, either individually or institutionally.

Home working, or telecommuting, is becoming more popular for all ages, but holds special promise for the elderly. Computer skills and telecommunications make commuting less attractive, and allow spare rooms to become productive. The move towards a knowledge and information based society will put a priority on lifetime learning. Recent research shows that students are receptive to teaching and learning over the Internet. Increasingly, casual information-based work is available that has no requirements for strength, and is suitable for ‘keeping a hand in’ while withdrawing from the full time workforce. On-line work can be a liberation from the restrictions of body, time and space.

As the list of site for seniors at the end of this paper indicates, there is a wealth of specialty information available for that group. Use of the Internet by the over 50s is predicted to increase dramatically over the next decade, and special courses are being set up to teach email and other on-line skills to retired groups.

Designing for interactivity

As might be expected, niche marketers have been quick to realise the market potential of future retirees, including their use of information technology. But widespread access in a market framework will not, in itself, create a participatory infrastructure that encourages and promotes sustainable solutions. While many are optimistic about the information society (Negroponte 1996), others look at the history of radio, television and cable TV and wonder if the Internet won’t become another commercial domain (McChesney 1996). These media were originally two-way, but became narrowed when commercial interests took over the policy agenda.

A full discussion of design aspects of a sustainable information infrastructure is beyond the scope of this paper. Sclove and Scheuer (1996) provide an introduction to that discussion, by comparing the information highway with interstate highways, and noting the many unforeseen and far reaching social consequences of the automobile as a dominant technology. A critical element is participatory design, long supported for small computer systems (Fiorilli 1997, Greenbaum 1991), but not generally considered for large scale systems.

The Internet has been a fertile ground for experimentation with electronic democracy. The well-publicised Minnesota E-democracy project has been copied elsewhere, and remains an example of building community on-line. Community networks are also places where seniors, and everyone else, can help build and use local content and local solutions. Usenet newsgroups have enthusiastic supporters of this very human corner of the Internet (Hauben 1997)

At first glance, it seems that governments have been quick to offer electronic interactivity to citizens. But often this turns out to be a weak form of interactivity that merely replaces previous information distribution methods to achieve cost savings. Draft policy documents with email comment boxes rarely take the next, logical step of full transparency: giving everyone access to all comments, so that the agency can be held accountable to citizen’s requirements.

The current generation of elderly are not generally computer-literate, and resist being compelled to do their government or banking business electronically. And they may not always benefit from government efforts to provide them with information. Information distribution is often aimed at easing government obligations, but doesn’t look into what kinds of information and services the elderly most need, and in what ways. (van Lieshout 1997)

Full access to relevant information is particularly important for decisions involving environmental issues. Newspapers and other mass media are no longer fully trustworthy or adequate sources of information, even for non-activist citizens. Increasing concentration of media ownership, and unacknowledged content from public relations firms acting on behalf of corporations, slants the view citizens have about many social and environmental issues (Stauber and Rampton 1995, Beder 1997)

Management theorists have been encouraging a collaborative, networking approach to dealing with the fast pace of corporate change. (Moss Kanter 1989) On the urban level, ‘agile cities’ are said to be based on a rapid and open exchange of information between sectors: government, education and industry all responding to opportunities for working together productively and cooperatively. (Jin and Stough 1996) Both these examples are aimed at economic survival and advancement. Full development of such interactivity on the citizen level, or for purposes of improving urban design and sustainability, are rare. But there are some encouraging signs. In the UK, consultation is being carried out on-line for the development of a long awaited Freedom of Information Act. (Rappaport 1997) A full discussion of the criteria for democratic design of technology in general is available in Sclove. (1995) An detailed outline of what this would imply for information technology may not yet be available, although there is an extensive literature on electronic democracy. (London 1994)


Design for a successfully ageing society shares many characteristics with design for a sustainable society. Both highlight the need for equitable, long term solutions which require complex information processing and extensive deliberation and evaluation. The role of interactive technologies in these policy processes has not yet been fully explored.


Minnesota E-Democracy. Accessed from the Web page with URL: on December 15, 1997.

Beder, Sharon. (1997). Global Spin - the corporate assault on environmentalism. Scribe Publications: Melbourne

Bogard, William. (1996). The simulation of surveillance - hypercontrol in telematic societies. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Leonard Fiorilli. Participatory Design: Designing Technology for Democracies. Accessed from the Web page with URL: on April 1997.

Flannery, Tim. (1994) The Future Eaters. Reed Books: Chatswood, NSW.

Fleay, Brian. (1995).The Decline of the Age of Oi l. Pluto Press: Sydney

Greenbaum, Joan, & Kyng, Morten. (1991). Design at Work - Cooperative Design of Computer Systems. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Hillsdate, New Jersey

Hauben, Michael, & Hauben, Ronda. (1997). Netizens - On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet. IEEE Computer Society Press: Los Alamitos, California

Jin, Dengjian, & Stough, Roger. (1996). "Agile Cities: The Role of Intelligent Transport Systems in Building the Learning Infrastructure for Metropolitan Economic Development". 1996 International Symposium on Technology and Society 'Technical Expertise and Public Decisions'. Princeton University 21-22 June 1996 . IEEE Society

London, Scott (1994). ELECTRONIC DEMOCRACY An Annotated Bibliography. Accessed from the Web page with URL: on August 8, 1997.

McCallum, John, & Geiselhart, Karin. (1996). Australia's New Aged - issues for young and old. Allen and Unwin: Sydney

McChesney, Robert. (1996). "The Internet and US Communication Policy-Making in Historical and Critical Perspective". Journal of Communication, 98-119.

Moss Kanter, Rosabeth. (1989). When Giants Learn to Dance. Unwin Hyman Limited: London

Negroponte, Nicholas. (1996). Being Digital. Hodder Headline Australia Pty Limited: Rydalmere, NSW

Rappaport, Irving(1997). Have Your Say to the Government! posting to, 12/12/97. UK Citizens' Online Democracy available from the Web page with URL:

Sclove, Richard E. (1995). Democracy and Technology. The Guilford Press: New York

Sclove, Richard, & Scheuer, Jeffrey. (1996). "On the Road Again? If Information Highways Are Anything like Interstate Highways-Watch Out!". in Computerization and Controversy. Rob Kling (Editor), (2nd edn., pp. 606-612). Academic Press: San Diego

Stauber, John, & Rampton, Sheldon. (1995). Toxic Sludge is Good for You! Lies, Damn lies and the public relatons industry. Common Courage Press: Monroe, Maine

Thurow, Lester. (1996). The Future of Capitalism. Allen and Unwin: Sydney

van Lieshout, Marc, Weijers, Thea, & van Rijsselt, Rene. "Growing Old in an Information Society". Culture and Democracy Revisited in the Global Information Society. Corfu May, 1997

Sites for seniors


American Association of Retired Persons

National Aging Information Center


A webpage of useful links, also tells about OZRETIRE, an Australian-based list on retirement issues.

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