A hundred pilots don't a market make

I had an interesting conversation with Simon Roberts this morning about the reasons for the slow pace of take up of aging-focused products. Simon is an anthropologist, and spent 6 years working on innovations in the aging space at Intel (now at a cerebral-sounding strategy and innovation consultancy, RedAssociates) and set up their aging-focused lab in Ireland. He’s knowledgeable, experienced and opinionated about what works and doesn’t in the technology space for seniors.

One of his interesting perspectives is the way in which the market for ‘ambient assisted living devices’ (AAL) isn’t; i.e. it’s a collection of pilots and supply-side initiatives that hasn’t developed sufficiently into a market, and lacks the all important data-driven feedback about what customers actually want (i.e. what they pay for). The paper he presented at a recent AAL conference in Europe is both clear and compelling:

Markets tell technologists, designers, academics or policy makers what it is that people are buying, using, adopting and saying about products. They are the most intimate of feedback mechanisms. We might refer to them as a conversational device. However, the challenge confronting the AAL community is the fact that a market, in the form of a fully functioning conversational device, does not currently exist. And in the absence of a market it is difficult to assess the actual usage, attitudes, practices and preferences of AAL consumers. My contention therefore is that while pilots might be useful they have a number of deficiencies when compared to a market – they are short term, often support abstracted or  ’unreal‘ use cases, benefit from un-natural levels of support and intervention from technicians and researchers, and, crucially, unlike a market, are not repeatable.

So, what to do about it? If you believe the thesis that the conversational aspect of a market delivers fundamental value that is instructive to entrepreneurs, designers, investors and ultimately consumers, then this is what we need to build. As such he proposes a number of specific recommendations, about which I’ve a few thoughts:

  • Creating a private pay system. Europe loves their top-down initiatives. I spent 5 years in Brussels rubbing shoulders with smart Eurocrats who needed to figure out how to spend their budgets before next year. Much of which is well meaning, such as next year being the European Year of Active Aging. Who knew? The important thing to do is to ensure that top down initiatives are catalysts to private sector innovation, and not industrial era policies. The 1980s in France called, and wants its policies back. Despite my bias for a public-delivered health solution (in the US, and elsewhere), this argues in favor of a market-driven system, with private, discretionary payments.
  • Focusing on design. A few companies such as Oxo, Apple and NY startup Omhu have done a good job at lowering the barrier to accessibility through good design. It’s not about universal design, it’s about great design.
  • Making products more conversational. Simon recommends considering ”integrating the ethos and practice of Web 2.0 into its creations – this means actively supporting interactions with other platforms, data sources and building an inherent sociality into devices”. I spent a good deal of time at Nokia working on creating “Nokia2.0″, and that was a learning process – trying to layer innovative technology onto an existing infrastructure, that ultimately met with mixed success. The aging space, as a industry rather than a company, is obviously different in that there’s no default way of doing things, and fewer vested interests in maintaining the status quo, so the outlook is brighter.
  • Innovation toolkits that allow for easier software and development integration. Simon suggests “a focus on, for example, the creation of software development kits (SDKs), would create the opportunity for a broad community of developers to create value for users at the front end, without having to focus on the complexity of the back end infrastructure.”. +1.
  • A systematic view of innovation – taking a holistic view of not only the solution but how it fits into the business system, what the business model is etc. This is one of the most important, but tricky issues to deal with. One of the reasons we started this blog is because we wanted to help accelerate the market as a whole, not any particular point, or part of the puzzle. This means business innovation integrated with deep understanding of users, caregivers and the ecosystem of suppliers, developers and payers that surrounds these products.