Getting aged care innovation right

| March 1, 2018

The aged care industry is currently undertaking sweeping changes due to government reforms to address demographic pressures, rising costs, and increasingly complex challenges. Innovation, to improve the opportunities for older members in our community to live meaningful, dignified, and socially relevant lives should be our focus in this sector writes Merlin Kong, principal advisor for innovAGEING.


For those who have been following, the aged care industry is currently undergoing sweeping changes as a result of government reforms to address demographic pressures, rising costs, and increasingly complex challenges.

Central to this, has been the government’s move towards a consumer-directed care model, which means providers are no longer able to rely on secure, recurrent funding from governments, and are now required to compete in order to attract and retain clients.

This alters what it means for existing providers to be ‘open for business.’ It’s also one of the main drivers for innovation in the industry.

Bolstered by exponential technological growth, the industry is spoilt for choice when it comes to technology solutions. Progress feels so much faster these days, with technologies such as augmented reality, or voice-driven interfaces—once considered science fiction— now a commercial reality, with exciting, yet-to-be-tapped potential.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee takes this exponential growth idea further, noting:

“This model has a fascinating result: because combinatorial possibilities explode so quickly there is soon a virtually infinite number of potentially valuable re-combinations of the existing knowledge pieces. The constraint on the economy’s growth then becomes the ability to go through all these potential re-combinations to find the truly valuable ones.” (The Second Machine Age, 2014)

For the most part—in an aged care context—much of these technologies, and business models have been applied from other industries. None of this is wrong per se, but it does call for reflection. As Jonas Downey, designer at Basecamp offered in his article Move Slowly and Fix Things:

But now, most software is so much more than that. It listens to us. It goes everywhere we go. It tracks everything we do. It has our fingerprints. Our heart rate. Our money. Our location. Our face. It’s the primary way we communicate our thoughts and feelings to our friends and family.

We’ve rapidly ceded an enormous amount of trust to software, under the hazy guise of forward progress and personal convenience. And since software is constantly evolving—one small point released at a time—each new breach of trust or privacy feels relatively small and easy to justify.

Reflect also, for a moment, how ubiquitous aspects in our everyday digital experience impact on older members within our community:

  • When they’re using ‘simple design’ interfaces that incorporate sticky features that are geared to getting users to spend more time online.
  • When they’re interacting with AI, automation, and robotic systems, which in turn reduces time spent interacting with real people, or decreased access to human carers.
  • When the platform they’re using collects information on them, and commodifies this to third parties.

Jaron Lanier in his book, You Are Not A Gadget, once noted that: “the most important thing about a technology is how it changes people.” He went on further to say that:

“Different media designs stimulate different potentials in human nature. We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence.” (2011)

This position takes a nuanced and proactive perspective on how we use our technology, and how it can be a positive driving force in society.

Within the aged care context, where people are living longer, and concepts of ageing are changing, technology and innovation can contribute tangibly in answering questions such as those Linda Fried posed in her article Making Ageing Positive:

  • How should we, as individuals and as a society, shape the trajectory of our longer lives?
  • Can we design a trajectory that improves the well-being and opportunities of people at all ages?
  • Should we be designing new social policies that will foster these opportunities?
  • How do we prepare young people for longer lives—and can these questions be answered in ways that would be beneficial for all generations?

This article isn’t a Luddite’s creed against technology, it’s a call to innovation that matters.

If we concede, as some in the industry have offered, that disruption in aged care is about person-centred care models, and if we agree that people are living longer (on average up to 30 years longer), then helping older members in our community live meaningful, dignified, and socially relevant lives is the true innovation focus in aged care.

This calls for repositioning aged care innovation along the following lines:

  • Reinterpreting the concept of ageing in relation to the design and delivery of services.
  • Fostering the development of new business models.
  • Enabling the industry to be more consumer-centric.

We’ll all grow old eventually (theoretically speaking), and if we get the settings for our aged care system wrong now, it’s just a matter of time before karma catches up to us.

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Merlin Kong is Principal Adviser for innovAGEING, an aged care national innovation network he helped establish in October 2017. He was previously an Executive Director for Community Support Services and Senior Advisor for Ageing in the ACT Legislative Assembly.