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Royal College of Art to Establish the Design Age Institute

RCA’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design harnesses the power of design to meet the needs of an ageing society

The Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design (HHCD) has been awarded a grant by Research England  to set up the Design Age Institute, a new national initiative aimed at focusing design expertise on the needs of the UK’s ageing population. The new Institute will form part of the HHCD, a pioneer in the study and practice of inclusive design for over more than 25 years founded by Lady Helen Hamlyn.

As the world shifts its focus towards innovation in global public health, the Design Age Institute will enable design teams in universities, spinouts and private sector firms across the UK to work on demonstrator projects with older people as part of this new initiative. By applying specialist expertise from academia and industry, it will go beyond intervention at the point of medical crisis to designing the products and services that will allow  people to live well for longer.

Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson

Dr Paul Thompson, Vice-Chancellor, RCA commented: 

“The Design Age Institute could not come at a more opportune moment: as we have seen during the recent Covid 19 pandemic, the UK still has a long way to go in terms prioritising the needs of an ageing population. And beyond the lockdown, we need a vigorous national debate about how we will support healthy ageing in intergenerational housing, workplaces and cities.

“We have caught a glimpse of how those aged over 70 self identify, their lifestyles, and their expectations. Universal design will play a vital role in enhancing quality of life issues for all - including older people.”  

The Design Age Institute, which received the grant from Research England, will work with national partners, including University of Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, the National Innovation Centre for Ageing at Newcastle University, International Longevity Centre UK and Design Museum, London, to create the UK’s first national design-for-ageing hub. This will identify opportunities for design-led innovation, build a national network and activate a series of demonstrator projects. 

This three-year programme will directly address the challenges of an ageing society, one of the most pressing issues for the UK’s Industrial Strategy in a Covid environment. It will bring together a network of top design teams from across the UK to address the key challenges.

Rama Gheerawo
Rama Gheerawo

The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Director, Rama Gheerawo said: 

“This award recognises the centrality of inclusive design in dealing with the challenge of an ageing society. The current pandemic only highlights the challenge that will affect how we build our homes, how we work and travel, and what products and services we will use in the future.”

HHCD’s Professor of Design, Jeremy Myerson, who jointly led the bid with Rama Gheerawo said:

“A focus on safety, sterility and isolation is essential right now to save lives. But beyond the lockdown, we need a vigorous national debate about how we will support healthy ageing in the future. We want the best of design to enable people to lead richer, more expansive and more fulfilled lives into older age.”

The new institute will address two important areas: first, homes and neighbourhoods to enable people to age well in place, reducing reliance on health and social care services; second, work and workplace, enabling longer working lives and greater economic independence. 

Britain has a rapidly ageing population. In 20 years, a quarter of the UK’s population will be over 60 – which presents a range of new challenges and opportunities. The Research England award recognises that design for ageing in the UK has been fragmented and the research base in UK universities under-utilised. 

Alice Frost, Director of Knowledge Exchange at Research England, said: 

“Research England’s investment in the DesignAge Institute will help switch business and the public sector to provide products and services that really meet the needs and aspirations of the customer, as well as great aesthetics and user experiences. 

“This is so important, to see ageing as an opportunity, both economically and in society.  

“Research England is also pleased to be able to showcase the importance of design in innovation, and to support collaboration between universities across the country.”

The Design Age Institute has recently recruited four key staff, including Director, Colum Lowe who he has held senior creative positions leading on inclusive and healthcare design at the NHS, The Design Council, Sainsbury's and, most recently, the Ministry of Justice.

Find out more about the Design Age Institute.