For me, the United States has always been the land of unlimited possibilities. It is also the land where my grandchildren are growing up. Thanks to Skype (European Union-invented!), I can be part of their lives whenever I like. Of course, I say this because I am a proud grandmother, but also because it can help us get the essence of aging in sharp focus.
Aging is about maintaining quality of life, health, independence, and an active life without social exclusion. The big challenge is to organize our economy and society in such a way that we can make this a reality for a large part of the population in an aging society. That is no easy task.
You could look at our aging society as a triumph. Advancing medical science and enlightened public policy have delivered something wonderful to our citizens: longer, healthier lives. Still, too many people see aging as a challenge, contributing to a rising cost in national accounts and demanding arduous responses. One can also see it as a fantastic opportunity, to enable people to contribute to our society after they turn 65. The European “silver economy” already amounts to €3 trillion—and is growing fast. Whichever way you look at it, one thing is clear: the change is huge, and we must respond. In my role as European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, I have been trying to make people see the unlimited possibilities of demographic aging and convince them to change their politics, policies, and philosophy. In 2060, the world will be entirely different demographically, and that calls for more than a few tweaks to pension rules.
Innovation is for Everyone
We need innovation, but in a broad sense—including technological, social, and economic innovation. But how do we stimulate and support it? That’s a tricky question. A major part of the answer lies in digital technology or, more officially, ICT-enhanced products and services for aging well. I am convinced they can help us achieve a better quality of life, more sustainable health and care systems, and economic growth and new jobs—a triple win. But many people think technology should not overtake care. Care and cure are people’s work, they say, or that older people and new technology do not go together very well. ICT innovation is by default associated with young people: teenagers texting constantly, cool websites targeted at twentysomethings, and start-up millionaires barely out of high school. But that’s blatantly wrong. If well-designed and responding to real user needs, innovative technology is for everyone, and it can support our shift to an age-friendly society.
Health and care can be used as an example. Our care institutions were built in a different age: intended to deal with acute conditions and short-term problems, and based on doctor visits, hospital stays, and medication prescriptions. An aging population faces different challenges: chronic, degenerative, and multiple long-term conditions are becoming more and more frequent. That calls for a different kind of solution, i.e. one that does not rob people of dignity and independence, but puts them in the center of care provision. It calls for an approach that does not focus on treatment, but on prevention and early detection, and supporting active and healthy lifestyles. ICT provides many practical ideas for this approach, from simple mobile apps that empower people to take control and monitor their health, to entire environments for assisted living without being dependent on others.
Cherish the Differences
Aging knows no borders. The European Union, the United States, and many other countries share this challenge. In Europe, national governments are still largely responsible for delivering care to those who need it. They can be effective agents of change, but sometimes the market is more responsive. And then there is the European fragmentation along national borders, which we work so hard to overcome. That is probably why we are slow in applying the potential of innovation, especially in areas like health and care, which is dominated by national regulation and government intervention. Yet, our diversity can help us design solutions that are not one size fits all, but applicable and transferable to different settings: flexible and open solutions for a global market. AARP shows us something that Europe does not have: a unified advocacy organization for the whole population, with the buying power to help shape the growing silver market. But Europe also has a lot to offer American companies. The active government policies on aging, research, and innovation are certainly at play here; the Intel Technology Research for Independent Living Centre in Ireland is a fine example.
Many initiatives of the European Commission support innovation for aging well. They take into account the specific European dimensions mentioned above, yet always aim for solutions with international potential. First, there are the major multiannual research and innovation programs: the current Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) and the new Horizon 2020 (H2020), running from 2014 until 2020. Promoting longer and healthier lives is one of the societal challenges of our €70 billion H2020 program. There we will continue to fund fundamental research on the effect of aging on body, mind, and community; as well as the technologies, services, and applications that can tackle these challenges and support active aging. We will also fund large-scale innovation actions to demonstrate how certain solutions yield a return on investment in terms of quality of life, care efficiency gains, and economic growth. We look forward to continued cooperation with US companies and institutions under H2020, more notably on open platforms and interoperability standards as a basis for an open, big-data approach to care innovation.
Assistive Technologies for Independent Living
Under H2020, we will also fund the Member State–driven Ambient Assisted Living Joint Programme (AAL JP). With this program, we want to help translate interesting ideas from research into realistic products and services with a clear market potential. After a successful first version, we plan to launch a second round for the next 7 years. In each AAL project, at least three Member States, one Small or Medium-sized Enterprise (SME), an academic institution, and a user organization work together. Part of its success is the participation of innovative SMEs that come up with ground breaking ICT-based solutions—for example, to keep older people socially interactive, enhance their mobility, or help them manage their daily activities at home. To improve and support knowledge-based policy making, we run a “More Years, Better Lives” Joint Programming Initiative. Finally, innovation for healthy living and active aging is one of the priority themes of the Knowledge and Innovation Communities of the European Institute for Technology. This is already a lot, but it is not enough. Innovation is only valuable if it makes a concrete difference to people’s lives. Only then will people see the benefits.
Kindle the Sparks to Build a Fire
Two years ago, we decided an extra step had to be taken to ensure that what works at a local level is shared and scaled up internationally. To achieve that, we needed to create a more favorable environment for innovations with a proven track record and to define which policies we need to adopt to make this happen—be it health and social policies, or employment and economic policies. It’s time to remove the barriers, including regulation and institutional arrangements that block the deployment of good practices that are already available. That is the philosophy of our European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Aging (EIP- AHA.) More than 3,000 parties (companies, patients, carers and health professionals representative organizations, academics) have committed to join forces on six concrete actions: medication adherence, fall prevention, frailty and malnutrition, integrated care, independent living, and age-friendly environments. Trials have shown that tele-health can improve survival and recovery as well as cut inconvenient, costly hospital visits. In some places with telemonitoring services, medical costs have gone down considerably, while in others the quality of life of chronic patients has increased. There are even regions where new jobs have been created. In other words, the sparks are there, but we need to build a fire. That’s why the EIP-AHA participants gather evidence, share and learn from each other, exchange good practice, energize those who get the message, and educate those who don’t. These many initiatives are already helping to improve the lives of millions of Europeans in a practical sense.
Creating an age-friendly European Union is also about building smarter and more age-friendly cities where it is easier to get around, with houses and buildings that are more responsive to people’s needs. That is the topic of yet another European innovation partnership in the making. And, of course, we need ubiquitous, fast broadband to make all of this possible. That is why I recently presented the proposal for a single market for telecoms.
Aging isn’t a problem; on the contrary, it can be a source of innovation and growth. It’s not just an expanding cost to be cut, but a growing market opportunity to be served. We all should benefit from it. Let’s join forces to turn this global challenge into a source of inspiration and growth for all.