Home E Societal engagement story – A good design is not for everybody

A good design is not for everybody!

Learning from codesign with seniors

We are about 40 people gathered at the CODE codesign centre at the Royal Academy, School of Design in Copenhagen. We at CODE are hosts for the event. Together with colleagues from the IT-University and the Municipality of Copenhagen, we have been on a journey with more than 100 seniors to find novel ways of getting together mediated by digital technologies.

The workshop celebrates a project which started three years earlier when the Municipality of Copenhagen approached us with a challenge: can we design digital technologies which encourage seniors to socialize more with one another? 


Seniors re-enact the playfulness of coming together in their ‘park community’

The single most important factor for senior wellbeing is having strong social relations. Meeting and interacting with others bring networks of caring and sharing, but for seniors, it may be a challenge to connect and take part in new relationships. Social media and interactive technologies are providing opportunities to stay in touch but these are rarely used by seniors.
We responded to the challenge by suggesting designing together with the seniors. With such a codesign approach, the starting point is not the technology itself or in-depth research into the problem of loneliness. Instead, the seniors are invited to be co-designers exploring with us how a rich and meaningful social life can be enhanced through novel ways of getting together.

We did not suggest that the seniors we invited had a problem connecting with others. On the contrary, we issued invitations to seniors who were already part of social clubs, activity centres or housing communities. We asked them to share what made these everyday communities worthwhile. The stories we collected became the baseline for a participatory design project, where we envisioned, rehearsed and performed prototypes of new community platforms through workshops and real-life experiments.

At afternoon workshops, we encouraged the seniors to make collages from the stories they had shared, depicting the rhythm of what counted as a ‘good day’ for them. We heard anecdotes of neighbours sharing a newspaper or leftovers from a meal and of having routines to look after each other. We learned about the everyday life of social clubs, where newcomers were welcomed but also made aware not to dwell too much on the hardships of losses inevitable in senior life. From the vivid interactions at the workshops, we also experienced the playfulness of coming together in networks outside of family and friends where one could chit-chat and share parts of the everyday without necessarily feeling the pressure to make friends.

Seniors making collages of the rhythms of a good day

The frame for designing together was set by seeing technology not as a solution to a particular problem, but as an opportunity to interact. With this frame, the aspirations and concerns for a meaningful social life take centre stage. We prompted the seniors to consider how to build and expand relationships around everyday activities such as shopping or work-out. From a technology perspective, we suggested using digital technologies to display and keep track of everyday activities, making these activities ‘tickets to talk’. Demonstrating how such technologies can be integrated with the mundane use of everyday objects, seniors and designers envisioned scenarios such as neighbours connecting spontaneously when they see each other going shopping with their walker, or playing petanque in the housing courtyard.

Asta reaching out for friends with the prototype ‘caller’

Asta, a long-time participant whom we first met alongside her knitting friends in a local social club, had her reservations when it came to computers and mobile phones. Having apparently had lengthy discussions with her children about whether or not she should purchase a phone, she was quite firm on not getting into these ‘new things’. But at one of our workshops, she got deeply involved in acting out a scenario of reaching out to friends in a shopping mall. Grabbing the cardboard prototype ‘caller’ on the table, she roleplayed how she would reach her peers. When she later saw a video of the scenario, she declared enthusiastically: ‘It’s here already!’. For her, the technology had literally become ready at hand, and with this, she could suddenly see what she could make of it.
During the workshops, scenarios acted out with dolls or in person provided a safe setting to rehearse the relationships that are within reach of the participants. What may at first appear promising could turn out to be cumbersome or dull, and what is met with reservations at first may turn out to be lively and playful when acted out in person.

However, to truly learn what using technology to connect entails, we have to take the scenarios out into the city and perform them ‘for real’. A community platform for playing in the park was created: seniors could meet for playful work-out sessions every second Friday in a public park in Copenhagen and stay in touch through a shared digital platform.

Seniors making up new rules for playing together

The platform was a response to a widely publicised suggestion from the municipality to provide ‘fitness on prescription’, and in the initial recruiting of participants, the local health centres made attempts to push new seniors to participate based on their health needs. However, the seniors who gathered at the playground had different ideas of what kept them together. Recruited by the municipality health centres and social clubs, the seniors soon formed their own networks. They learned new games and brought over the ways of playfully interacting during the games in person to their interactions on the digital platform. In the process, they came to ‘own’ the community. As the municipal officers continued to push for other seniors to join this platform, they had to acknowledge that every community, as every individual, has its own history. To become part of this story one has to go along with it, or initiate one’s own new playful community.
Back in our laughter-filled workshop, it is precisely the uniqueness of each community that our participant Svend is hinting at when he comments that ‘we do not call it fitness, but we are tired afterwards’, and it is to protect what is dear and special about the community in the park that Kirsten states ‘this is not for everyone’. Such comments may seem at odds with the goals of producing innovative solutions for the many. To us, however, they show an important accomplishment. To serve the many we have to provide infrastructures that make every community become unique. What we had done together is already making this uniqueness come alive as a response to the particular issues our collaborators cared about.

We do not call it fitness, but we are tired afterwards!


Seniors and researchers celebrating a fruitful collaboration

The ending of a co-design process marks new beginnings. All projects have an end, but the experiments they initiate can live on as long as what is learned enables further engagement. Strengthened by the re-enactment of the playful practices in the park, the seniors continued their communities on their own, relying on what they learned.

The municipality moved away from its idea to offer ‘one-size-fits-all’ fitness to seniors. Instead, it initiated a new programme, ‘Together in work-out’, which provides dedicated services to senior communities and is made available as a helping hand for new senior communities to form.

Finally, we as researchers moved on to other collaborations pursuing further the codesign of enabling technologies, strengthening the formation of ad hoc communities among seniors through subtle openings for interaction.

Do you want to hear more from this project? Have a look at their film!

The research described in this article stems from the Seniorinteraktion project funded by the Danish Enterprise and Construction Authority program for user-driven innovation.

The research was conducted by the IT University of Copenhagen and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design in collaboration with the Municipality of Copenhagen, the DaneAge Association, Falck, Fisketorvet Shopping Mall, Humankoncept, FI Danmark, HTC – smart mobility, Inuse, and AKP Design.

The text is written by Thomas Binder with contributions also from Lone Malmborg, Tomas Sokoler, Signe Yndigegn, Eva Brandt and Maria Foverskov. A book on the project, (Brandt, E., Fjerritslev Mortensen, P., Malmborg, L., Binder, T. & Sokoler, T. (eds.). (2012) SeniorInteraktion: Innovation gennem dialog. Det Kongelige Danske Kunstakademis Skole for Design) is available in Danish on ResearchGate.

The names of the seniors in the text are fictional but built on actual participants.

Cristina Paca, Clara Boissenin, Nicola Hamilton, and Nick Murray (Ecsite) contributed.