Inside

Solidarity Network

Bringing digital networks to life

How can we design a digital tool to strengthen social ties between older people in existing communities?

An estimated one million people over 65 in the UK report feeling lonely. The physiological damage of loneliness poses a huge threat, not only to well-being, but also to health.  Today, with an ageing population, this is an area of increasing concern where design research can offer real and practical solutions.

The way we communicate with one another has shifted dramatically to include digital platforms that regularly progress, leaving behind and excluding a section of the older generation that find it difficult to adjust to the speed of technological developments. An older person’s feelings of anxiety over using digital technology can be compounded by other problems; physical changes mean it can be difficult to use hand-held devices that often have small buttons and text, or changes in cognitive ability might also affect the way an older person experiences information online.

Solidarity Network is a collaboration between the Helen Hamlyn Centre of Design and EPFL+ECAL Lab, the design research centre of the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) that looks at the potential of emerging technologies through design and innovation, working with in-house programmers, designers and researchers.

From Switzerland to The UK
The brief for this project is an expansion of a network developed by EPFL+ECAL Lab, The Leenaards Foundation (which supports the development of culture, science and Health in the Lake Geneva areas) and Pro Senectute the main national organisation for elderly people in Switzerland. ‘Quartiers Solidaires’ is already established as a community network for older people in Switzerland with over 13 years of experience and a validated methodology. It provides a schedule of social activities detailing clubs and gatherings so that people can meet up for cooking, to organise events or join walking groups. With the Solidarity Network, project, EPFL+ECAL Lab and the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design are working towards a digital complement to this network and to replicate and evolve the model in the UK.

Emily Groves began her research by attending silver surfer groups in Hackney, Enfield and Lambeth to observe how older people interact with technology. She also conducted a series of interviews with people who are less digitally engaged as well as members and organisers of community groups. She found numerous problems with the accessibility of websites, that people suffered anxiety about joining activity groups and that the methods of communicating information about different activities are diminishing.

Online and Offline
The Centre is now working on designing a service to improve social links amongst people in real life, not virtual friendships and digital performance. It will provide details about events and activities as well as review photo-sharing sections to let potential participants see what activities are like before they join. It is internet connected so that it can collate and rapidly update information about activities from different organisations in the area specific to the user. However, the service has two sides to allow for private and community-based use. An app and website (which avoids computer jargon, hidden features and user profiles) means easy access for those who already use internet connected devices at home. The community-based side of the project, for which the research stage is still ongoing, involves finding a way to make the database of information provided on the app available in a public space such as a library or community centre so that it can reach those people who would not necessarily know how to find a website or know about local groups.

See previous projects with the EPFL+ECAL Lab: 2013, 2012

Research Associate:
Emily Groves

Age & Diversity Research Leader:
Dr Chris McGinley

Research Partner: 
EPFL+ECAL Lab