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Designing with not for: An unusual tale of user-centered design

Guest Contribution: Jane Mussared, CEO, COTA SA

Image Credit: The History of the Brassiere

The bra of 2016 comes in every imaginable shade, in at least 36 sizes, comes with a joey pocket to stash your phone, is invisible, washable, can be worn on the inside or the outside and even, in some of the latest iterations, is said to be close to detecting breast cancer.

But the bra comes from pretty ordinary beginnings. The precursors to the modern bra – including the corset – were first worn as early as the 14th century – perhaps even earlier. They were conceived, invented, manufactured and taken to market by men for women. They did not take off – indeed they were pretty hard to take off!!  Under the cover of many layers of clothes, women were secretly making all sorts of modifications to make horrific contraptions almost tolerable.

The big breakthrough came when a woman, Herminie Cadolle (herself the owner of a pair of beasts), invented the wellbeing bra. It first appeared in a catalogue in 1889 and cut the traditional corset in two.  This radical redesign shifted focus away from corsetry that had fought the female form in a bid to reshape and constrict, to a device that started to embrace women’s bodies.  It paid attention to function and comfort. It was said to be the bra that freed women. And then in 1977, three women designers cut up a couple of jockstraps and created the sports bra, a bra capable of being an ally (and not an enemy) of liberated women. Whether or not the bra was really burnt at the 1968 Miss America pageant, it has gone from strength to strength.  In any year, women spend $16 billion on bras, and own, on average, 9 pairs each.

The turning point was the involvement of women in all stages of design. It turns out that the problem the bra was to fix was not, as early male designers had guessed, to change the shape and aesthetic of the female body.  The problem to be fixed in fact was the support of wildly different shapes and sizes of breasts while women ran, worked, danced, debated and bred.

The bra and services and products for older people are not all that different. The same two success criteria are evident in great innovation for older people. The first is that innovation must shift the way we value ageing – overturn ageism and stop guessing what might help older people live. Indeed much of what masquerades at the moment as innovation in fact institutionalises ageism. The second success factor is that innovation must liberate the most powerful force of innovation and social change - older people themselves.

So here is my favourite innovation. Let me introduce the Living Lab – a large living lab in Flanders, Belgium – the iMinds iLab.o - is an example.  It is a test and experimentation platform that offers innovators a representative test panel of over 10,000 users.  There are other useful elements too - a dedicated back office platform, business model simulation tools and application prototyping expertise. It is, as good living labs are, an ecosystem of innovation where end users become part of the design partnership. In 2016 no-one would have the gumption or indeed stupidity, to invent bras for women without women.  It would be an investment disaster.

But we invent on behalf of older people all the time. Last year Adelaide hosted a technology challenge as part of a global ageing innovation initiative.  7 local start up companies pitched for support for their technology solutions so they could showcase them and get access to venture capital. It was a terrific initiative except that every single one of the 7 pitches required that older people lived in an institution – a pill crushing machine, a gait monitor, a frame to help people get out of bed – provided someone was on standby to fetch it for them.

Do you know what proportion of the well over 3 million Australians aged over 65 live in nursing homes? 5%!  The rest of the market - 3 million people - live at home with every fibre of their body and every penny in their pocket invested in mastering their own homes, living independently and never leaving. Older people all over the world are cutting up their metaphorical bras, adjusting under their layers to make things that don’t fit work, craving aesthetic appeal in equipment that has therapeutic stamped all over it -  they want a place inside the lab. Living Labs have the potential to create communities of end-users and producers interacting in real-life settings whether virtual or actual, and overcoming failures in the innovation process by involving users from the outset.

Living Labs have the potential to turn the corset into a sports bra. Like women, older people do not want ill-fitting solutions to make them change their shape – they want to make their shape work.

Who knows what they will define as their priorities to be fixed?

  • Houses that can last a lifetime
  • Packaging that even the least dextrous of fingers can open
  • A dating solution for the over 75s
  • An alternative to keyboards that require tiny nimble fingers to operate
  • Food at home that someone else cooks but that still reflects their taste.

Who knows?

Our challenge in SA is to pick up the LL concept and, learning from the tortured history of bras, create an x factor in SA that will stand us apart, by engaging people power in design. LL must involve older people not just in testing someone else’s solution to a problem they didn’t know they had, but in defining the problem in the first place.  And then, imagine, iterating potential solutions, and, if they like them, assisting in selling and teaching others about those solutions. The bra is an uplifting story of innovation.  Even the cleverest men cannot design for a women’s bodies without women. Our cleverest SA designers equally cannot invent solutions for older people without older people.

The best innovation?

Living Labs - cross my heart!