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From talk to action: Eight steps to turn the UK into a global longevity leader

There is an increasing awareness of the need for innovation to address the needs of our ageing population, and now is the time for action. 

The transformational demographics we are living in – Britons today can expect at least an extra thirty years of healthy life  compared to their great grandparents – requires a fundamental rethinking of attitudes in society, job markets, pensions, housing and city planning, transportation, finance, health and care systems, and more.

The government has been taking steps – they included ageing as one of the four Grand Challenges of the UK’s Industrial Strategy – along with the glitzier topics of AI & data, mobility and clean growth. Over-65s in Europe spend €3tn annually, and hold most of society’s wealth. My sense is that Brexit has sucked the energy out of this (and most other initiatives), perhaps why the £98m ‘healthy ageing programme’ announced in March has still to be launched.   

Today’s Longevity Forum, a collaboration between Andrew Scott (LBS Professor and co-author with Lynda Gratton of the 100 Year Life) and investor Jim Mellon was a useful gathering of globally-minded innovators focusing on scientific and biological aspects as well as social / policy ones. Inevitably there wasn’t time to cover all topics (such as some of my pet issues: new financing models, urban planning and technology solutions), but the day provided important momentum and naturally surfaced the question of, what’s next?  

Ageing is multi-faceted so – like climate change – needs a grand coalition between the business community, academics and civil society. My experience as co-founder of Aging2.0 for the past 7 years has given me a sense of both the need to build an ecosystem and the scale of the tasks involved. The following eight steps are designed to help the UK become a leader in this fast emerging area. The benefits of a more balanced, equal, intergenerational society, potentially with the upside of a new emerging industry, would be more than worth the effort.

1. CHALLENGES | Mission-inspired, metric-driven, moonshots to give focus and measure impact

As noted, ageing is a multi-faceted topic and we need to create agreement on what problems we’re going to be working on to focus the minds. Aging2.0 has developed the Grand Challenges, the World Health Organization has the Ottawa Framework for age-friendly cities, Health2.0 has its moonshots, and the Center for Ageing Better is developing a set of topics together with Innovate UK. Recently UCL professor Mariana Mazzucato proposed a mission-oriented research and development framework (which includes a case study about dementia), which has been used to deliver a new €100bn research initiative by the Commission (which didn’t get much press that I’m aware of). The high level goal announced earlier this year in the UK of five extra years of healthy, independent life is a good start – we now need to flesh this out in work streams and pick individual goals and metrics for areas that support it, whether it’s the size of the digital divide, the number of people identified as lonely, those awaiting home-care services (a number that has risen 50% in the last few years to 1.2m) and so on.

Government action needed: Developing a high impact exciting mission or missions, a la Kennedy’s moonshot. Note: First conversations should be with real people, startup founders and marketers / advertisers to find topics that create an emotional connection and only then have them filtered by innately cautious academics and bureaucrats.

2. CZAR | Longevity Czar (or Tsar) reporting to the Prime Minister

This needs to be a cross-bench appointment and the tsar needs to be someone that all major parties support and whose mandate and job will continue beyond the fall of this or that Government. The short term nature of politics is anathema to getting long term structural change programmes implemented. This person should be responsible for creating a coalition of the willing behind big, bold, audacious goals, raising the profile of the topic, keeping the lights on (raising cash where needed) and stimulating the private sector to get behind this.

Government action needed: Appointing someone who is fiercely committed to the Moonshots and is able to incite a community to rise up and deliver. This person needs to be credible to the business community, as well as the academics and governments, as well as connect with real people. 

3. COMMUNITY | An open and supportive community to cross siloes and raise awareness  

Ageing requires a cross disciplinary approach, yet is remarkably siloed. A community should be built up that allows all sides to connect driven by these mission-driven challenges. The challenges will bring people together with a common perspective in unexpected ways and ‘creating collisions’ at content and networking events is a tried and trusted way to ensure serendipitous connections. This community should include established and credible executives (including startups), researchers, government and civil society representatives, as well as older and younger people and interested students and researchers.

Government action needed: Investing time and energy with community leaders.

(Author’s note: Aging2.0 the organisation I co-founded in 2012 now has Chapters in 68 cities and is expanding its London base).

4. CONSULTING | World-leading consulting practice / thought leaders and think tanks

For such a potentially big emerging market, there are relatively few consulting companies and think tanks (notable exceptions being International Longevity Center and Centre for Ageing Better) focused on this area. Private sector consultants will develop niche practices or spin out new companies focused on this area, and their insights about articulating the market opportunities, sharing best practices and providing advice for companies will accelerate the development of the space.  

Government action needed: Ensuring that think tanks / non-profits share data and collaborate, and are informed about the Moonshots.  

5. COLLABORATIVE | A tech tool to power collaboration, enable matchmaking and spot opportunities

Communities and consulting can only go so far – in-person meetings are the most powerful but hard to scale and generally rely on chance encounters. Online tools like LinkedIn generally don’t provide help with specific matchmaking and reports from consultants and think tanks often sit unread on shelves or gathering cyber dust in the cloud. AI-driven tools can do a better job of building profiles (for example, automatically fleshing out interests based on published activity) and providing matches between organizations looking for, and offering, certain things (for example using tags and indexes to find matches).

Government action needed: Support public and private sector efforts to create better tools for analyzing and match-making within the ecosystem.

6. CO-WORKING | Physical Regional Innovation Hubs

Brexit has sparked political fissures and shown we have in many senses a broken and unhappy country. These divisions are exacerbated by an overwhelming London-centricity and income inequalities. We should develop regional centers of excellence, and not have everything centered on London (or Oxford / Cambridge, delightful though they are). There needs to be a dialogue with the regions about what areas they will focus on, but the core of each regional hub would be a physical co-work space, bringing together people and sparking ‘messy’ connections as well as more formal ones. This would be the place where startups can work out of, and has spaces for talks and lectures (connected to the other regional hubs), as well ideally as a place that older people can live, and work – e.g. co-located with a senior housing facility.

Government action needed: Explore how existing devolution efforts can support this, potentially in conjunction with the physical spaces at existing public-private efforts, e.g. the Catapults.

7. CAPITAL | Multi-tiered fund matched with private sector investment

The Dementia Discovery Fund has raised several hundred million dollars towards a cure for dementia, and there should be similar funds investing in making multi-generational societies work for all – the care as well as the cure. This should be an operational fund, or more likely funds, that invest at a range of levels:

  • Micro – Small grants for promising projects on a topic, with minimal applications and vetting
  • Accelerator – grants, loans and equity investments into early stage companies
  • Operational Grants – funding to deploy new solutions at scale in the market, focusing on ROI and best practice development

Government action needed: Encouraging existing vehicles (e.g. British Business Bank and Big Society Capital) to supplement government grant funding and attract private sector investors.

8. CONFERENCES | Regular events to attract global experts and hold the community accountable  

I hesitate to write this, as the world doesn’t really need more conferences. However, to get a new space off the ground there needs to be critical mass of people meeting in person, and a place to do it. For the past 5 years we’ve run OPTIMIZE in San Francisco which has been a good way to gather the global innovation community and take a pulse about what’s new and important. For this event I’d recommend three things making it high level (Ministerial level keynotes), global (best practices from around the world) and beyond ageing – (drawing, in particular, the FTSE 2000 companies who will be impacted by increased longevity but may not know it yet). I would have Mayors make commitments for their cities and have a challenge fund reward Mayors with the most compelling ideas to go off and implement novel solutions and come back the following year to talk about it.

Government action needed to government:  Commitment of high level / ministerial presence as well as encouraging attendance from the Mayors of the regions.

This is a first pass on key areas, but does illustrates this is not a single shot solution. Tackling the reality of increased longevity and turning it from a challenge to an opportunity across the UK will require a concerted, joined up and focused effort, that will likely meet with initial resistance, especially from those comfortable in their siloes. But the prize of developing a genuinely healthy ageing society would be not just five years of healthy independent life, lower health costs and greater quality of life for all, but the creation of a new and sought-after industry expertise in this increasingly important and valuable area.