Technological innovations and new mobility:  Attitudes and values of older people.

In Western societies, people are living longer than ever before and are also more mobile than ever, but transport can still be an issue in later life due to physiological and cognitive challenges. I had run 4 focus groups with a total of 36 people, looking at older people’s attitudes to how technology and innovations might overcome mobility challenges faced in later life. The findings from this were ideal for a chapter entitled Older People’s Mobility, New Transport Technologies and User-Centred Innovation  in the book, “Towards user-centric transport in Europe – Challenges, solutions and collaborations” edited by Beate Muller and Gereon Meyer, that I was asked to contribute towards which looks more generally at user-centric innovation within the transport system.

I was struck by how older people wanted to keep things relatively low-tech and simple and that for older people who might find everyday mobility difficult, replacing literal mobility like for like wasn’t always needed. Older people were already doing stuff that replaced the need to be quite so mobile, for example eshopping and getting things delivered and they were also using Skype and FaceTime to stay connected to family who live a long way away,

“I have family in Australia I don’t get to see yet I feel quite close as we Skype quite a bit. It’s so lovely to see their little ones, my great-nieces and nephews” (female, aged 80)

And one person was enjoying viewing places of significance to him on webcams

“It’s great to see the places I grew up in on those webcams. Some haven’t changed much at all. I love using them! I don’t suppose I shall go back there but I can still see it” (male, aged 80)

Transport innovation stemming from the individuals themselves is relatively low-tech and is often in the form of social capital, supporting others in their mobility needs. Yet, despite being low-tech in operation, this supported practical, emotional and pleasurable mobility practices both through virtual means, for example, doing e-shopping for others or the one older lady who took in the parcels for the street, or through more  literal means, for example, coordinate others’  lifts or being a volunteer driver,

“I’m driving people in the local community around, people I know, but I know sometimes, because when I get there they say, that I could’ve taken a few others who’ve got a taxi there themselves. So something that joins us all up. Something like Uber for oldies? Grey Uber would be the way forwards?” (male, aged 76, car driver).

In terms of future innovations, automated cars sprang to mind readily among the older people I talked to. There is much press coverage about them recently in the UK, so this was unsurprising. More surprising was how much current drivers disliked the idea, there was concern about their safety especially in interacting with pedestrians and in letting go of control,

“I hear that human error is a major factor in driver crashes but I would hate, and I think many would agree with me, hate to give up control of the vehicle. I just couldn’t trust the technology. Maybe I’m a control freak” (male, car driver, aged 77)

There was more support from current non-drivers and those who had given-up driving. But overall, using future implementation scenarios realty helped individuals articulate thoughtful answers,

“You won’t see them on residential roads or town centres; I can see them on motorways. I can’t see them being on the same streets as pedestrians. Maybe they’ll be behind fences. It isn’t a future I want but I bet it is one the politicians and car companies want” (male, aged 70)

There was mixed feelings with regards to other transport innovations in the pipeline. Generally, there was support for technology that improved real time information for buses or trains. However, there were concerns over such systems taking over the role of staff who may be made redundant and it is well acknowledged how much staff can help overcome barriers for older people.  People generally liked Uber or Lyft, the idea of being able to see who the driver is, maybe picking the driver and knowing the cost, compared to a taxi was seen as beneficial, but there were safety concerns due to the negative press associated with such services. Older people didn’t like innovations that would result in more sharing. There was a feeling that older people were being singled out as having a worse service because of it,

“Typical isn’t it. Provision of transport for older people is always about sharing. Like we’re not worth it as an individual. I wouldn’t want to see it. I still value independence and freedom and sharing transport isn’t for me. Not always anyway”  (male, aged 71)

Older people liked the idea of better integration of services, especially if this can be guaranteed. People could see the potential for mobility as a service to be useful in helping with this, especially guaranteeing changes between modes with potential for it to improve integration.  However, they did have reservations over whether joined up data could feasibly happen.

It has to be noted though that despite using future scenario work in the focus groups, people’s visioning of the future of transport is still very much as if transport is like it is today. It was hard for people to step out of what they currently know. Hence much of the discussion was how technology supports current transport, not how it can change the need for transport and mobility.  It is suggested that moving forwards re-convened focus groups or longer day-long workshops might help older people with visioning how technology might change the future needs and demands.

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