“A lack of co-ordination at the local, national and international level on numerous initiatives launched rapidly to combat COVID-19 could result in notably reduced co-operation and exchanges of data and results between funded projects.”

Issued by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), this warning claims that “Involving multi-sector and multi-partner coordination mechanisms is key to help countries better prepare for the world of tomorrow.”

Given the likelihood that we will be living with the threat of pandemics for the foreseeable future, working cooperatively and pooling resources will help safeguard the long-term sustainability of our health and social care sectors, and ensure public space remains a safe and habitable communal meeting point for all.

Cultivating age-friendly environments

To this end, the Agile Ageing Alliance (AAA) has joined an EU wide interdisciplinary consortium “SHAPES“, led by the ALL (Assisting Living & Learning) Institute at Maynooth University Ireland.

A 4 year €21m research initiative SHAPES is exploring the potential of user-led digital solutions, centred around the home and community, to empower older adults and learn about the impact of COVID-19 on their lives.

According to Melanie Labor, SHAPES postdoctoral researcher at the Maynooth Department of Psychology, “COVID-19 has profoundly disrupted the routine of everyday lives and shifted the focus toward the home. Lock down and working from home whilst, in many cases, caring for children, has made people acutely aware of the limited boundaries of our respective environments; yet, the crisis has also presented opportunities for people to explore their local neighbourhoods and beyond, highlighting, in particular, the need for healthy green spaces in urban settings.”

In many towns and cities, councils have reallocated space by widening footpaths, removing car parking and pedestrianizing city streets. While conflicting interests regarding the allocation or ownership of space, as well as shortcomings pertaining to mobility and accessibility present challenges for city planners and policy makers, these responses to the pandemic have given us an idea of how our built environment could be utilised differently. SHAPES aims to investigate how local communities can act as a microcosm through which these issues can be explored and expanded upon as a basis for cultivating age-friendly multigenerational environments.

Planning for standards

Funded through Horizon 2020, EU’s largest ever Research and Innovation Programme, the driving force behind the SHAPES project is the Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG Connect). Thomas Reibe, a Senior Expert at DG Connect says “Involvement of standards needs to happen as early as possible, because you need to plan for it. Our vision is that researchers don’t just focus on the publication of the research results or patenting their research results, but also consider standardisation from the beginning of their process. My advice for the research community is to get involved by joining the standards committees and being part of drafting the standards from the beginning.”

With a view to translating DG Connect’s vision into best practice, AAA has joined forces with ISO, to enable members of the SHAPES consortium to contribute -with other multinational stakeholders -towards development of an ISO standards framework for smart multigenerational neighbourhoods. (Click on this link for further details)


Anthropologist David Prendergast, has spent the past 22 years focusing on ageing and the life course, connected environments, and the urban internet of things. Initially at Intel, directing User Experience and Design Research teams in the areas of digital health and sustainable cities, and now at Maynooth University, as professor of science, technology and society.

David says: “Much of my career has focused on driving transdisciplinary research projects exploring real-world ‘wicked problems’ in academic-industrial collaborations. As we build the ISO framework for our smart multigenerational neighbourhoods of the future, we should consider that ‘Ageing-in-place’ means far more than continuing to live amongst the comforts and memories of home. For many older adults, it is public and private environments where they feel safe, a sense of belonging and purpose; where they are ‘known’ in their communities. It is also the opportunity to keep active and busy, to work or volunteer, to laugh with friends, to be able to navigate the hurdles of visiting the shops. It is ‘the trust’ that they will be heard when reaching out for support during the known trials and unexpected tribulations of the later life course.

The impact of the pandemic has emphasised the import of care-giving in the community as a crucial element of this support; along with older individuals feeling empowered to make decisions about how and from whom they receive care. Such decision-making is the key to maintaining dignity.”

People are different: Needs, wishes and preferences change over time

“Successful outcomes in cultivating people’s independence is based on carefully taking into account all impacting factors and discussing these with relevant stakeholders, especially older people” says Evert-Jan Hoogerwerf, Secretary-General of the Association for the Advancement of Assistive Technology in Europe.

Evert-Jan heads up Assistive Technology at SHAPES partner, AIAS Bologna, a multidisciplinary organisation comprising engineers, occupational therapists, social workers, educators, psychologists and architects. “The main lesson that we have learned is that people are different and that needs, wishes and preferences change over time, determined as they are by the individual’s health, social and financial conditions and life experience.

While I am certain we need standards in order to achieve any kind of scale and efficient knowledge exchange, the planning and coordination process will be very complex because there are so many aspects involved. But, I can imagine this standard framework being so much greater than the sum of its parts, serving as an ecosystem in which a network of existing and new standards are consolidated and interlinked. So I very much welcome the challenge”.

Inclusivity should be an uncompromising standard

Matt McCann, Founder of Access Earth, an Irish tech startup, is equally enthusiastic, but warns: “Today’s built environment is ideally suited for mid-twenties right-handed males. Looking to the future, without conscious consideration towards accessibility needs, we will fall into the trap of designing environments we may all eventually age out of and exclude others from.”

For SHAPES, Access Earth is planning to demonstrate how these barriers prevent an equal and inclusive society from being actualised.

Matt says: “The internet of things (IOT) has become irrevocably linked with the creation of smart cities. As the name implies, smarter cities, towns and neighbourhoods can only be built atop smarter data. Which is a big challenge when it comes to the creation of new processes and opportunities, because data is frequently an afterthought. To achieve scale it is essential to use the correct building blocks, aligned with standards that qualify how we view and measure the world around us, and inform our decision making processes”.

An ethical challenge

Led by Sari Sarlio-Siintola, a senior lecturer at Laurea University of Applied Sciences in Helsinki, SHAPES has set up a dedicated team (Work Package) to address the ethical challenge. With particular expertise in social responsibility management and ethics of innovations, Laurea aims to examine the ethical and social dimensions of the proposed solutions and, on that basis, guide the development work so that the result – service, product and/or operating model – is ethically and socially legitimate.

Sari says: “For us it is also essential to understand ethics as a resource for better solutions, not only as a burden or risk of violating rights or being uncompliant with regulations.”

AAA legal advisor Karen Holden, Founder, of A City Law Firm Ltd London, who is helping to consolidate and frame the ISO proposition, says: “Failure to properly protect data is an ever-growing concern, especially in the context of healthcare. This risk is only going to increase as AI-enabled technologies to become smarter and more and more personal information is generated.

The potential for abuse is growing every day. Anyone designing disruptive technology should be thinking strategically about data protection, beyond the here and now. This is particularly true for any technology designed for the home, and especially the homes of potentially vulnerable people.

The question remains

Whose moral compass will be incorporated into the technology? With large conglomerates controlling the advancing technologies, it is important that some form of the human element is retained in this process. Technology will continue to shape our society. The process of guiding this development into an ethical path should not be left to a single party. The work of SHAPES and the wider AAA ISO consortium will inform a debate which will affect all of our lives. I am looking forward to an exciting journey.”

Songs in the key of life

Likening the standards development process to composing a symphony, ISO’s sees its role as similar to that of a conductor, with the orchestra made up of independent technical experts and stakeholders, working together to meet the needs of a dedicated audience.

Once we have completed our investigation and are ready to share with the wider international standards community, the ISO voting process becomes the key to consensus. If that’s achieved then the draft is on its way to becoming an ISO standard. If an agreement isn’t reached then the draft will be modified further and voted on again.

In conclusion, given OECD’s concern at the lack of co-ordination in addressing the pandemic, I am convinced that collaborative, more holistic, blended solutions such as SHAPES, will contribute to improve the management of future global health crises. In months to come I will introduce other members of the SHAPES, AAA ISO ensemble. In the meantime, if you are interested in contributing to our symphony please follow this link.

Article Author:

Ian Spero, Founder Agile Ageing Alliance

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