Kyoto’s Adaptive Advice

An international conference focuses on practical designs for aging societies.

The 2nd International Conference for Universal Design in Kyoto got off to an inauspicious start when the opening speaker, His Imperial Highness Prince Tomohito, appeared on stage only briefly to explain that he’d suffered a broken jaw, which had subsequently been wired shut. There would be no lecture.

Yet Prince Tomohito’s unfortunate injury provided an oddly fitting reminder of why a host of industrial designers, architects, city planners, caregivers, elected officials, and corporations gathered at Kyoto’s International Conference Hall this past October over four days to discuss universal design (UD). (For those new to the term, UD is an approach to the design of products, services, and environments to be usable by as many people as possible regardless of age or ability.) With world populations aging rapidly—a trend already well underway in Japan, a self-dubbed “super-aging society”—even royalty can encounter accidents.

The conference reinforced that what it means to be old is changing. Many people over the age of 70 are staying active, whether it’s someone in Norway (a world leader in universal design along with Japan) extending their career or a grandparent in sub-Saharan Africa taking care of an HIV-positive baby whose parents have died of AIDS. It isn’t just polite to make their world accessible: it’s imperative.

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For many other retirees, mental and physical isolation is the challenge. A major antidote, says Dr. Jane Barratt, secretary general for the International Federation on Aging, is creating “age friendly cities. It’s about creating enabling environments. Public space is an important opportunity.”

Relatedly, there was a debate at the conference about whether governments can or should mandate the creativity and innovation necessary for good UD. “I think fixed standards and regulations make design more predictable,” if not outright boring, says Valerie Fletcher of Adaptive Environments in Boston. “It becomes, ‘Just tell me what I have to do.’”

But the government still must play a role, cautions Takuma Yamamoto, president of the conference’s organizing committee. “Our dream is to send the message that universal design is the global standard, not just for industrial design, but for architecture, community planning, public transportation, telecommunications, broadcasting, disaster prevention, law.”

A range of products geared toward mobility and independence could be found in the conference’s exhibit hall. A Sony television eschewed the traditional remote control for a stuffed animal and several small cards with different pictures representing subjects. Touch the easily identifiable card with a picture of a baseball, and a game appears onscreen

Toyota and Nissan unveiled dazzling futuristic one-person vehicles. Toyota’s i-Unit concept vehicle could limit transportation restrictions by acting as both a pedestrian and limited city driving tool—kind of like a moped crossed with a tricycle. Nissan’s Pivo seems more strictly a one-person automobile, but its cab swivels a full 360 degrees for added safety and mobility. It would aid elderly and/or handicapped persons getting in and out of vehicles and be a benefit for all users who would now have the ability to get in and out of the car on the less dangerous curb side of the car.

Yet the movement ultimately is about something deeper and nobler than products. “We in the UD movement share work that is meaningful and makes a positive difference in the world,” says Fletcher. “Of course we appear to be pushing against the tide in a world more narrow minded and mean spirited. We know how far we have to go. But coming together like this reinforces a sense of the rightness of our mission.”

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