Last week I visited two exhibitions in London. Both related to age: one looking forward with design-based solutions to the problems of ageing, the other looking back and celebrating the nostalgic iconography of popular music. I have to admit that I preferred the warm glow of vinyl and music from my youth to the cold grip of robots and technology offered as a solution to the problems of old age.
New / Old - how design can enhance later life
New Old is a free pop-up exhibition at the Design Museum, which runs until February 19th. It’s worth the trip to Kensington just to see what has been done with the old Commonwealth Institute (a staple of school trips back in the day). The exhibition itself sets out to ‘explore the potential for design and designers to enhance the experience of our later lives’ and is curated by the Jeremy Myerson, Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art, and a man highly regarded by this writer.
The exhibition asked designers to consider how to meet the challenge of a rapidly ageing society, and in doing so, to rethink design approaches to ageing. The exhibition is organised into six sections - Ageing, Identity, Home, Community, Working and Mobility - each of which features a design commission by a leading designer or design team, creating new solutions for demographic change as well as addressing the challenges of ageing.
We are taken on a strange journey that includes robotic underwear based on military technology, driverless cars, sentient digital companions, smart furniture, and apartments with secret passages patrolled by technicians fixing things and stocking fridges. All thought-provoking, but ultimately a little depressing.
Thirty years ago, one of the first exhibitions at the Design Museum was New Design for Old, which showcased products designed to help older people stay independent in the home. Technology has changed, of course, but so has our view of age and ageing. Or has it? Staying independent still seems to depend almost entirely upon the intervention of smart tech-savvy young people, it seems – older people themselves are still viewed as having little contribution to make, other than passivity and dependence.