Are Smart Cities Age-Friendly?

The term “smart city” usually conjures up images of futuristic, fantastical cityscapes but the reality of implementing smart city initiatives is more based in reality. Designing and deploying smart technology is about responding to community needs. Age-Friendly cities are also built to respond to community needs, and potential partnerships in this space are often overlooked. To help us understand the concept of Age-Friendly and what this means for smart cities, I have the pleasure of interviewing Erin Maruzzella, Executive Director for the Innovations in Aging Collaborative. 

An Interview with Erin Maruzzella, Executive Director for the Innovations in Aging Collaborative. 

CC: Hello Erin! Thanks for lending your expertise on the topic of Age-Friendly.

EM: It’s great to connect with you.

CC: So for those who may be unfamiliar with the concept of Age-Friendly, what does this mean?

EM: Age-Friendly is a design thinking approach that communities can use to emphasize creation of an environment that promotes active aging, enhancing quality of life and allowing individuals to age in good health and dignity. Age-Friendly design thinking at the community level serves the needs and opportunities of people of all ages, though frequently focuses on older adults and the promotion of their well-being and active inclusion in all facets of society. This is because older residents tend to be at a greater risk of losing access to civic resources.

In our experience, we find that success in Age-Friendly communities depends on least two things: (1) Maintaining the pulse on the local needs and opportunities of aging citizens, and (2) Maintaining a collaborative cross-sector network of community- and government-based leaders with a passion to serve aging from within their sector.

CC: What are some examples of how a city could be considered Age-Friendly?

EM: We use the lens of “Livable Communities” which are places that are safe, secure, and have affordable housing and transportation options, as well as offer supportive community features and services that allow people to stay engaged and active throughout their lives. These communities are designed to promote the well-being of residents of all ages, enabling them to live independently and comfortably, with access to essential services and opportunities for social interaction and participation. 

CC: That sounds like a community where anyone would want to live! It sounds like communities that are Age-Friendly are not just designed to accommodate people of a specific age group, but rather are cities that support a high quality of life.

EM: That’s right. Age-Friendly communities support the concept of community, which specifically include all ages, abilities, and lived experiences.

CC: So let’s talk about the process of designing an Age-Friendly community and what this means for smart city technology.

EM: I see tremendous opportunities for smart cities to partner with Age-Friendly designers in ways that fit into three main categories: (1) Designing the built environment, (2) Using data to support healthy lifestyles, and (3) Digital Equity.

CC: Excellent. Talk to me about the built environment application and how data collected and analyzed throughout a city’s physical landscape could impact service delivery?

EM: Age-Friendly design for communities crosses many different functional areas of civic life including housing, parks, and transportation. It inspires questions regarding how easy it is to move about a city and how easily residents can access community resources. What transportation options are available and are they designed for differently-abled people? How closely connected are areas for shopping, dining, and recreation with where people live? How does the city enable social participation across all age groups? How accessible are healthcare facilities? Smart city technology that measures these logistical issues and the associated impacts could greatly enhance a city’s ability to be considered Age-Friendly. 

CC: So what about data to support healthy lifestyles?

EM: There are so many innovative approaches to designing technology to support older adults and their caregivers, improving health outcomes with data solutions. We encourage partnerships with entrepreneurial ecosystem builders and are here to share our expertise in Age-Friendly Design Thinking to pilot groundbreaking products—in any industry, though health and wellness are at the forefront. There is a lot of interest in AgeTech products currently, with multiple organizations serving the national conversation such as the AgeTech Collaborative from AARP and the Techstars Future of Longevity Accelerator. This Techstars Accelerator focuses on innovative solutions to address the unmet needs of older adults and their caregivers, and you can see the focus on health and wellness in their program themes, including: Caregiver Support, Care Coordination, Aging in Place, Financial Wellness and Resilience, Preventive Health (both Physical and Cognitive), and Social Engagement. 

CC: Also, the concept of Digital Equity is an important component and I’m glad you included this in your list. Share more about how you see the Digital Equity needs related to Age-Friendly cities?

EM: Digital access and digital literacy have been described as a “super social determinant of health”, as they have become the backbone for access to resources that allow us to thrive and age well in our communities. The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has identified older adults as a target population at risk of reduced access to digital resources, and all Age-Friendly cities should be invested in ensuring aging citizens are connected. There are three pillars to serving digital equity: ensuring access to high-speed connectivity, access to devices, and knowing how to use them. Smart city initiatives that do not consider these pillars in their own work risk scaling inequity when citizens on the other side of the digital divide get left behind as the digital divide widens. This is one reason that I feel so strongly that smart cities and Age-Friendly cities should be working closely together in the communities they serve.

CC: Thank you for providing such great background on your perspective on Age-Friendly communities. Where are you seeing these concepts at work?

EM: We are based in the City of Colorado Springs, Colorado, which was an early adopter of the Age-Friendly community framework in the United States in 2015 and is of course recognized as a Smart 50 Award winner! We also engage regularly with other members of the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance and benefit from their expertise on smart cities. We are currently partnering with state-level agencies in Colorado on the state’s Digital Equity, Literacy, and Inclusion Initiative, as well as a state-wide health equity pilot that utilizes AgeTech solutions. The success of these initiatives has not only relied upon the Age-Friendly network that we have built and sustained regionally for almost a decade, but also benefits from a community that is primed for tech-solutions. I credit forward-thinking smart cities leaders with priming our region for these partnerships.

CC: Thanks for all of the great information and insight you’ve shared with us, Erin! I hope that people reading this continue to connect with you to learn more about your work and explore how more city leaders can create age-friendly communities!

EM: Thank you and please connect with us on our website, through LinkedIn, and we’ll see you in Raleigh for the Spring Smart Cities Connect Conference!