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Kicking off consultations for the UK Healthy Ageing Challenge – how to make it radically different?

While nobody doubts the need for doing things differently in preparing for our ageing societies, there’s less agreement on what needs to be done and how to do it. That daunting challenge is the one taken on by the new UK’s £98m Healthy Ageing Grand Challenge and the coming months will be the opportunity to show that this time, it will be different. 

Newcastle was recently picked to be the home of the new National Innovation Center in Ageing, and it was therefore a fitting place for the UK to hold the first of a number of consultative meetings on the new Challenge. This event, which brought together about 150 people from industry, government and academia, was an opportunity for the team from Innovate UK (Eric Kihlstrom, the new Challenge Director and formerly Aging2.0 London Ambassador, and Hazel Harper) to share updates with key people and start to develop the community from which consortia will emerge. This post includes an overview of the event and Challenge info that we know so far, an interview with Eric, and a summary of the discussions that happened around our table.

Eric Kihlstrom: laying out the framework for the Challenge

Eric and Hazel provided a background overview to the Challenge and the state of current thinking. This is moving at a fast pace, so much is still not decided, but a few things that are known include:

  • £98m funding available for healthy ageing to go to industry-led (i.e. not academic-led) consortia
  • Focus will be on improving lives AND laying the foundations for building globally successful and sustainable businesses
  • Funding will go to three things: demonstrators, behavioural studies, and research / SMEs, with the demonstrators being the short term focus (challenge info will be out by the Summer)
Eric Kihlstrom (source:

I caught up with Eric after the event to ask him a few questions:

Stephen Johnston: What was this week’s meeting in Newcastle about?

Eric Kihlstrom: This week we hosted the first of the Healthy Ageing Challenge Fund Pre-briefing Consultations in Newcastle. It’s been less than a month since the Healthy Ageing Challenge was announced, and we’re now racing full tilt to get input from the industry about how the Challenge should be run – this was the first formal event. The challenge is on a fast timetable – it’s due to launch before the summer so we need companies to start building collaborations in advance of the release of the briefing. We want companies to form ecosystems of ongoing innovation around healthy ageing and it won’t happen overnight.

SDBJ: What’s the topic of the Challenge?

EK: The reality is that we are going as fast as we can and the actual brief is not written yet, we’re working on that now, and gave out as much information as we could. We hope that companies were able to get a sense of where  the competition is going and that they made some good connections. The feedback has been very good and people are engaged; there is a lot of excitement about the opportunity.

SDBJ: What’s the plan going for the next few weeks and months?

EK: Obviously, people want more detail and we are now incorporating the constructive feedback we’ve had so far and preparing to hold several more consultation events across the country in April and May. Keep an eye out on news about the brief release date along with the corresponding challenge briefing dates as we hope to go public with future dates in the near future.

Will it be different? ‘Challenging the Challenge’ 

Jackie Marshall-Cyrus had been invited to give a provocative talk- lighting a fire under the crowd to do things differently. Jackie knows more about efforts to promote innovation in ageing in the UK than most people, and her combination of “in-the-trenches” experience with her bold delivery upped the ante. Jackie relayed the real life impact that poor innovation, inefficiencies and bad management have on people’s lives, and the need for simple solutions. One slide (left) showed a group of nine UK initiatives in the healthy ageing space since 2004 which added up to £225m in funding. She noted the lack of major outcomes, due to limited high level (ministerial) support and lack of broader appeal. In his remarks, Eric noted that would be different with this Challenge, which has evolved based on past learnings. He pointed out that the Ageing Society Grand Challenge is one of four overall nationwide Challenges, and ministers are on board; for example, the day started with a video welcome created for the event by Caroline Dinenage, Minister of Heath and Social Care.  In terms of broader appeal, that’s the key metric of success – the Challenge is engaging with consumer brands and large organizations who will be required to work with startups – ensuring both novel ideas but also scale and impact. Eric emphasized that the  industry-led aspect of this is key – this is not an exercise for academics but for industry, though the most successful consortia will make full use of academic partners.   

The use of personas – we adopted Maslow to make what we thought was a scalable solution.

The Challenge will ask people to address their solutions to up to 4 distinct types of persona, each with different characteristics – Joan has early stage dementia, Robert has declining physical abilities, Emma has people with multiple morbidities and high acuity needs and Martin represents innovative care service providers as well as unpaid carers.

Our table was focused on Robert, and we were tasked with identifying the ecosystem around him and how to build a scalable solution. We ended up using a modified Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with the following categories: health, housing, human connection, meals, money, mobility and meaning (see diagram below). We then proposed a time-sharing model for the informal community component (on the left) and a marketplace for the more formal service provision (on the right).

Overall, this was a productive day that allowed a lot of people ‘in the business’ to get exposed to the latest thinking about the Challenge and to meet each other. It was a strong start, but the bigger question remains – will it be different and will it have an impact? Two quite specific recommendations from my side: ensure that there is sufficient focus on contribution and meaning of older people (not just the medical topics) and bring in ‘unusual suspects’ (e.g. intergenerational, racial and sector diversity). If you have big ideas for how this can be radically different AND effective, feel free to leave them in the comments. Eric and Hazel are burning the midnight oil and putting finishing touches on the Challenge in the coming weeks and I look forward to seeing this important initiative launch and be a standard bearer for innovation in ageing globally.