In this ongoing event series, we invite each FabCafe to introduce the character of their local branch, show the projects they’re working on, and tell us how they’re responding to the unique challenges faced by their city or region.
In Vol. 2, David Tena Vicente, CEO of FabCafe Barcelona, explains how technology can be used to improve wellbeing among elderly communities in Spain. In a unique cross-talk, we also welcome Dr. Jun Rekimoto, Director of Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Inc. Kyoto Laboratory (Sony CSL Kyoto), to discuss how the concept of wellbeing itself can be interpreted in many different ways.
Cities owe a debt to rural areas
FabCafe Barcelona opened its doors in 2013 with David Tena Vicente as one of the co-founders. Like all FabCafes, it doubles as a cafe and fabrication space. It’s also part of a larger coworking space called Makers of Barcelona located in the centre of this fabled city synonymous with modern art and architecture.
David explains that technical training is a big part of FabCafe’s business, with courses offered both in-house and through institutional partners like the University of Barcelona. We also learn about their focus on fabrication using sustainable materials through the example of a car side-mirror made from coffee grounds sourced from the cafe.
The main topic of discussion is a project that FabCafe has embarked on in Zamora, a small city in northwestern Spain. Zamora is said to be the third most aged city in Europe, and this demographic trend is playing out across much of Spain. David explains that 87% of Spain is becoming depopulated as young people continue to migrate to the big cities:
Towns in the rural areas of Spain are being abandoned. The people who do stay in these towns are normally the elderly who do not want to leave the towns in which they’ve lived their whole lives. Younger relatives have probably left for bigger cities to find better job opportunities or to study. Even some critical jobs like in elderly care centres are lacking enough younger people to work there.
It’s interesting that while environmental issues are widely understood to be global, demographic issues are still thought of as national. Rapid ageing of rural communities is an issue not only in Spain but across much of Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as parts of East Asia, including Japan. Can these different regions learn from each other? Let’s find out.
Depopulation as economic opportunity
Ageing Zamora is trying to see the silver lining. There’s a history of hype around the so-called silver economy, but Zamora is pushing hard to realise the economic potential of products and services that target the over-50s. It recently opened a tech park and invited FabCafe Barcelona to set up FabCafe Zamora, which will serve as a hub for other tech businesses to launch silver economy projects in Zamora.
David anticipates these projects will include expanding cellular coverage and internet access, using IoT devices to improve quality of life at home, promoting established sectors like agriculture, improving mobility between Zamora and nearby towns, establishing a local digital fabrication network, and testing robotics solutions for elderly care.
In the robotics field, FabCafe is collaborating with companies on two solutions. The first is a humanoid robot capable of physical tasks like lifting that are critical to elderly care. This robot is aimed at care homes. The second is a much smaller robot that can take health measurements, but can’t perform physical tasks. This robot is projected to be only a tenth of the cost. Both robots can interact with elderly users, but in different ways:
Users have a different relationship with the two robots. It’s a different dynamic. We cannot start both projects at the same time, so we have to decide which of the robots to develop first. So we bring this topic up today to get more feedback and see what you all think about it.
It’s a question of which can contribute most to human wellbeing. The robot that takes care of physical needs but, as David notes, can be intimidating to users? Or the robot that plays a less intrusive role in caring for an elderly companion? The answer may depend on our understanding of wellbeing.
Yutakasa: from satisfaction to exploration
For a different take on wellbeing, we turn to Dr.Jun Rekimoto, Director of Sony CSL Kyoto. Japan is at the forefront of dealing with the ageing society issues that we now see in Spain. The main goal of Sony CSL Kyoto is to pursue the idea of yutakasa (ゆたかさ), a Japanese conception of quality of life, by integrating technology and culture into lived experience.
Dr. Rekimoto explains that while yutakasa literally means wealth or abundance, the real connotation is one of spiritual richness. Yutakasa shifts our understanding of wellbeing from one of contentment, or good physical and mental health, to one of maximising potential or living life to the full:
Yutakasa doesn’t just mean richness in the sense of money or physical resources. It’s the ability to select a lifestyle or pursue an opportunity.
The older we get, the more we seek this kind of self-actualisation. That’s why a silver economy should focus on providing experiences as much as meeting basic health needs. Increasingly, those experiences will be offered virtually, making them accessible to rural communities. Telepresence is therefore a key research area at CSL Kyoto.
Dr. Rekimoto shows us how technology can connect the lab in downtown Kyoto with remote parts of Japan or the rest of the world. At the same time, he recognises the limitations. Some physical experiences remain off-limits, one example being taste:
Just connecting to another space is good, but there are things we cannot share virtually, like Japanese food. In the future, maybe FabCafe can fabricate any food in any location. But at this moment, I want to respect both sides of virtual and physical. Maybe we can unbundle cyber and physical and reconstruct the value of both.
When it comes to designing technology for wellbeing, we may have to let go of some assumptions. One is that wellbeing is an individual concern. Dr. Rekimoto suggests that it’s just as much about connectivity and our ability to expand our horizons and abilities by networking with others.
Cross-talk: designing technology for wellbeing
In the following discussion, both speakers agreed that connectivity works on many different levels, not just for obvious uses like telemedicine, but also for other human needs like security and social connection. Dr. Rekimoto believes that connectivity can bring much bigger gains than solutions designed with individuals in mind:
I’m researching human augmentation. We might think of a cyborg as one example, like someone with a robotic arm. This is individual augmentation, but what I think is more important is network augmentation, where my ability can be connected to another person’s ability, or a robot’s ability, or AI.
He reminds us to consider the limitations of technology:
I said earlier that the balance between virtual and physical is important. Now, I use Zoom too much. I’m just sitting at my desk without moving my body. I think just physically walking around is quite important. What part of physicality is important and what part can be transferred to virtual is a very important issue.
David believes that technology for wellbeing should adopt some principles:
I think it’s very intertwined with health, not only physically but also mentally. It’s something that works across generations. It should not be invasive or stressful for the user. That also means you shouldn’t feel stressed when you don’t have it. That’s how I would define technology designed for richness of life.
But he also sees limitations to the openness of users:
One of the challenges of deploying technology is that sometimes the technology is so far ahead that the user doesn’t understand it and doesn’t completely trust it. Some of our interviewees in Zamora will never have a camera at home, even if it doesn’t record. Any sensor of any kind, even if it’s not a camera, they will mistrust.
There’s also the question of making sure that elderly care professionals are kept up to date with the latest technology. David thinks this is the duty of organisations:
In Spain, there’s already a role being created in companies which is in charge of making sure that everyone knows the tools they are using. So if you have 50 or 60 people doing assistance at private homes, and there’s a change of phone app, someone is in charge of making sure everyone knows how to use it.
Dr. Rekimoto thinks the role of technology is to make itself attractive to users:
There is no need to follow all technologies. If new technologies are not useful, they go away naturally. You don’t have to keep up with everything. Just wait and technology will catch up to you.
Technology is built on the assumption that young people will be the first adopters, while older people will “catch on” later. But what if we designed technology from the perspective of older users first? A completely different assumption would be that older people may have the time and resources to utilise technology to its full potential. With the coming of the metaverse, we need more technologists like David and Dr. Rekimoto to make wellbeing and inclusivity core features in product design.
Anyone interested in collaborating with FabCafe on silver economy projects in Zamora can enquire here.
Watch the video
That concludes our Barcelona edition of Around the FabCafe World in 180 Days. The full video is below for anyone who missed the event. David has now passed the baton from Barcelona to Tim Wong in FabCafe Taipei!