In conjunction with each issue of St-W, we challenge emerging designers to answer a topical question with a future-forward design concept.
Triggered by a UN report predicting that by 2050 the world’s population over 65 years of age will outnumber those under 15, for St-W 115 we asked five makers to come up with an item, tool or service that responds to our planet’s growing number of senior citizens. The Enrichers, a Dutch design collective, was one of them.
Instead of developing a product for the elderly, you’ve decided to target the young?
GOVERT FLINT: Yes. An increasingly elderly population means that healthcare expenses will rise in the future. We propose a sustainable design movement based on the use of environmental stimulation to increase wellbeing.
What’s wrong with contemporary environments?
In today’s world, we spend more than 90 per cent of our time indoors. Interior spaces have characteristics that are very different from those of the fields and forests that human evolution intended for us to experience. The way we live now stimulates different parts of the brain, which doesn’t fulfil its original function.
Why is this?
Most or our information comes from screen-based media, so we are primarily ‘messaged’ through our sense of sight. However, our body is designed to recognize other living creatures and our surroundings in a multisensory way. The touch, movement and cognition that such perception entails are rarely used in our daily lives: we are visually overstimulated but physically under-stimulated by our tools and surroundings.
You talk about ‘environmental enrichment’ as a way to change the situation. What does the term stand for?
It’s a combination of sensing through skin: touch, climate and scent; through muscles: movement and balance; through cognition: awareness of challenge; and through sight: orientation and dynamics. The level of intensity relates to circadian rhythms, which are influenced by light, food and social interaction.
Are you saying that environmental enrichment is different for everyone?
Yes. There’s no such thing as one perfect enriched environment. The right type of enrichment depends on time of day, personal characteristics, the participant’s condition and the activity involved.
Is environmental enrichment already in action?
For animals, yes. Research has shown that mice kept in enriched cages have more resistance to mental disorders, are more likely to live longer and generally recover quicker from illness in comparison with mice kept in deprived cages. Researchers are currently studying the effects of environmental enrichment on Alzheimer’s disease.
Okay. So what do you think an enriched environment for humans will look like in 2050?
Our bodies will be stimulated to move by products and environments. Walls will be tactile, and a range of body-support tools – from dynamic wheelchairs to almost invisible exoskeletons – will be in common use. Such aids will be equipped with sensors that can generate biofeedback. They will adjust to the wearer’s mood to optimize activation or relaxation of the mind.
You’re talking about extremely enhanced technologies . . .
In the beginning, a computer was a room. In the 1980s, the personal computer became available as a desktop device. Later, the laptop appeared and eventually went mainstream. More recently, tablets and smartphones are turning technology into an accessory. Smart watches, wearables and VR connect technology to the body. Following in the footsteps of existing implantable devices, technology will enter every cell of the body. People will become physically one with their digital identities. The environment, on the other hand, will not require the same type of technology it uses now. The body will be your control unit, your computer mouse and your keyboard, and the environment will act as the interface.
Can you tell us about the wall you’ve conceived?
It’s both an interface for controlling devices and a computer. The wall needs physical input from the user to produce movement and sensory experience; this happens through the skin. A movement that is challenging or unpredictable forces the user to think about how to react. Thinking about the proper response stimulates various parts of the brain and activates the body’s muscles.
What will be the impact of technology on our health?
People who are 65 in 2050 will look like today’s 40-year-olds, partly because of increased bodily activity and sensory stimulation facilitated by enriched environments in everything from kindergartens, schools and universities to offices, homes, trains, cars and public spaces.