Our world is growing older – fast.
With longer life expectancies and declining birth rates, the reality of the ‘aging society’ is something many developed nations are now facing up to, as they grapple with the rippling impacts of this change. According to 2019 estimates from the UN, the number of people aged 65 and older is projected to reach 1.5 billion by 2050, doubling current figures.
Japan, which has the world’s oldest population, is now the global face of the aging society. In recent years, as it learns to live with this unprecedented demographic shift, it has also become the global leader in this area of research.
Together with award-winning designer and researcher Jan Chipchase (of Studio D Radiodurans), Loftwork embarked on an ambitious research project on aging – using design research. Commissioned by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the team headed to Tokyo and the rural town of Yoshino (Nara county), as well as Chengdu, China, to rethink what it really means to grow old, and in doing so, find the silver linings in the so-called ‘silver economy’.
What Does It Mean to ‘Grow Old’?: Challenging Tacit Knowledge
Exploring lifestyles and attitudes of aging for those over 65 years old, Transformations: A Foundational Study on Aging in Japan and China involved 170 participants over three locations in Japan and China.
As a design research project, engineers and researchers from Panasonic, NEC and Keio University were also invited to take part in the field study. Rather than conventional marketing research, having those who actually design the product or service involved in research can help us to better understand and cater to the nuances of people’s lives.
More significantly, design research helps us on the ‘why’, including the context behind the actions and thoughts of users/consumers, something that may be difficult to uncover through quantitative or qualitative research. It is a research method that can reveal perspectives and attitudes that even the respondents were not aware of, something which was befitting for a study on a growing, yet often misunderstood, demographic.
According to creative director and team member Mami Jinno, the team asked questions like: ‘What are the perceptions related to age?’ and ‘What are the associated customs, institutions and services?’
“By examining and interpreting these questions, redefining concepts, and giving names and frameworks to things that were once tacit knowledge, we proposed directions for businesses that might emerge in the future,” she says.
With regard to tacit knowledge, Jinno points to a basic need of redefining life stages themselves, given that the average life expectancy of developed countries is much higher than it was in the middle of the 20th century, during which many classifications were made. Using the example of Thomas Armstrong’s ‘Twelve Stages of Human Development’ theory, she says that where childhood is categorized in detail, life after 50 looks vague. “But during this period, there are still many events, such as retirement, or the death of someone of the same generation.”
Design Research Is About Immersing Yourself in Their Contexts
The team used design research practices to conduct a rapid immersion into Japanese and Chinese aging cultures. This method puts qualitative, ethnographic research, derived from sociology, into the design process, attempting to comprehensively understand the subjects in their everyday contexts. The research and synthesis was conducted over nine weeks, separated into two phases of foundation research and ideation/conception.
The team operated pop-up studios in each research location: working out of an apartment in Tokyo, a converted ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) and disused pharmacy in Yoshino, and a hostel in Chengdu. The team also conducted synthesis in a mountain retreat in Sichuan province, ideal for the space required and the reflective nature of the exercise.
According to Chipchase, pop-up studios are proven to support rapid immersion in a new
environment and multi-national team alignment, and help the team achieve creative flow.
In-depth contextual interviews were held inside the home, workplace or a place the participant frequented (such as sports halls, community centres or public parks). These sessions were usually focused on one family member, but sometimes included other people nearby, such as their caregivers. Home and business tours also included research on daily activities such as rituals, hobbies, exercise routines and communication tools.
Shorter ad-hoc interviews were conducted in local markets, hospitals, schools, parks, temples, community centres, universities, bars, retail spaces, etc., with either one person or a group of elderly people. These were supplemented by daily observations, with the team heading to local festivals or parks, to watch the elderly engage in different activities such as exercise or mahjong.
By observing the subject’s daily life and the things they come into contact with, teams were able to get the more ‘unconscious’ answers that were not verbalized. “I try to put myself in someone’s shoes as much as possible,” Mami Jinno says. “What is important is not the number of investigations but the depth. There is a way to ensure quality by taking quantity, but Jan Chipchase said, ‘By going deeper, you can get clear core results,’ which made sense to me based on my experience in research.”
Visualizing the Meaning of Aging
In Transformations, the life stages after 50 have been redefined into four new categories:
New Responsibility (50-64 years old), Transformation (65-75 years old), Coping (76-80 years old) and Death. These categories have been further expanded to include details like affinity with family members and people in the same age group, as well as cultural attitudes about ‘returning to the soil’.
Beyond redefining and making the new life stages, the team sought to further visualize the meaning of aging in eight different areas. Based on findings from the research, the team made conceptual diagrams to map out the significant changes in lifestyle that occur as a person transitions into ‘old age’. These include the visualization of transitioning into retirement, parent-child reciprocity, health and more.
The team also constructed five symbolic archetypes based on the interviews, extracting common elements from the characteristics, behaviors, and mindsets of the 170 research subjects. An archetype is a non-existent but plausible stand-in of a person that encompasses all research subjects, serving as a customer image for designing new businesses, products, and services.
Based on the insights obtained from the field research and the defined five archetypes, the team was able to outline nine key opportunity areas that can be used as reference for creating new businesses, products, and services – seeking to form a kind of blueprint for the growing ‘silver economy’.
Physical and mental decline, health, and economic issues that have already become apparent are also broadly treated and summarized as themes to be pursued in more depth in the next phase and beyond.