The Power of Localized Solutions in Response to the Challenge of Aging Societies

By: Alex Smith

Publish Date: July  10,  2012

Every generation faces its unique challenge, one new to history and testing in the extreme. In previous times, societies were ravaged by war. Social unrest stretched various countries to breaking point. Some epochs have been tried by pestilence, others by economic advancement that outran their communities’ ability to keep pace, causing resentment and harmful crises of identity.

For this generation, our defining challenge is how we care for a rapidly growing and rapidly aging population. Across the world, welfare systems are already creaking under disproportionately bottom-heavy demographics. In the west, the biggest generation in history – the baby boomers – are reaching retirement age right at the time when people are living longer than ever before. Meanwhile, the global economy is yet to emerge from the biggest shock and period of prolonged austerity for a century. In many industrialised economies, tax-takes are down as unemployment rises and growth remains slow or non-existent. Massive national deficits persist, at a time of great need.

Those economic challenges have had a serious knock-on effect on social security. The vision of the 1930s and ‘40s – under Roosevelt and Beveridge – of a welfare state that provides for the elderly, infirm and unemployed, while making room in the jobs market for younger, healthier workers, is buckling under current economic and demographic realities. Simply, our welfare systems have become too big, our ability to pay for them as demographics shift, too small. Around the world, politicians are grappling with reform. But few have the mandate – or will – for the type of radicalism required to turn the tide towards a more sustainable care model for the future.

Of course, our aging societies in many ways represent a significant achievement. Longevity is generally a measure of wellbeing; it is linked to major improvements in healthcare, nutrition, education and economic development. For many, particularly in economically developed countries, middle age is extending into the 60s. As it does so, life chances are expanding long into later age, including opportunities for employment, social interaction and general and cultural enrichment.

But we have to be honest: while these numbers represent the fruits of centuries of human endeavour, they also reflect the greatest challenge of our time. As our populations continue to age, and especially as our budgets continue to diminish, we need to develop new strategies for how we finance our loved ones through comfortable, healthy and happy longer lives; how we tackle oncoming medical and social challenges that accompany aging; and how, during a protracted period of low economic growth, we balance the real need for youth employment with people’s understandable desires to work longer, and to enjoy a more active later life.

The answers are unlikely to be developed by national governments acting alone. In these austere times, few governments will be willing to invest in one-size-fits-all National Care Services, funded and run from the centre. In any case, those heavy bureaucracies are not fit for the challenge: they are too remote for our times, in which instant gratification and choice are part of the everyday experience.

Rather, it is in our communities that we will develop the solutions of the future. They will be shared and improved via the local, regional and global networks already established through technology, corporate social responsibility, social enterprise and philanthropy. Through the vibrant and creative energy in those networks, small ideas will be disseminated and rehashed, developed and bespoke for communities thousands of miles from where they were originally conceived.

In the UK, three organisations in particular are collaborating to add value to the social sector: UnLtd, Nesta and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Those groups support enterprising ideas and people, with funding, research, access to partnerships and professional development. They have helped seed impressive new ideas that could have a major impact on how we support our older neighbours in the future, not just in the UK but around the world.

The Campaign to End Loneliness, for instance, is a major national campaign funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. It works with partners from across the sector to harness networks and spread best practice from around the country – and helps others learn from and build on those ideas in their own area. Laura Ferguson, the Campaign’s director, agrees that the solutions to our challenge will not arrive from government alone: "We understand that there is no single response to loneliness because it is a highly personal thing to experience. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. It's about hearing the voices of older people, and galvanising everybody into action. By involving local groups, local leaders and inspiring more people across the country to make improvements to the way they live and work with the older people they know, we believe loneliness can be reduced.”


Nesta’s Reboot Britain initiative – with its motto “social web for social good” – and its Innovation in Giving fund, have unearthed a number of collaborative technologies to push the public sector and public services to embrace digital techniques. Its “Age Unlimited” programme has focussed those energies specifically on developing solutions to problems associated with older age.


Nesta has supported Age UK Hackney’s “Forward Thinking Network”, a people-powered network of social groups and activities set up and run by its older members. The network shares ideas on health, finance, relationships and more. Its intention ultimately is to make the experience of aging more positive.


Nesta has also collaborated with Sidekick Studios, an incubator for start-ups with an eye for beautiful design. Sidekick has unleashed “Jointly”, a new tool for the three million people who juggle work and care, “League of Meals”, a sharable shopping list application which helps older people get their groceries, and “The Amazings”, a project to bring older people’s skill, wisdom, experience and vibrancy deeper into society for everyone’s benefit.


The social enterprise I set up, North London Cares, takes a comparatively modest approach. We want to connect people who might not normally interact from across various socio-economic demographics. Harnessing the social and human capital that already exists in four very socially mixed boroughs in London –  by mobilising young professionals through digital, social and professional networks – our volunteers interact with and perform odd jobs for their neighbours in need of a little extra support or companionship. Those small interactions – in many cases between the most connected and the most isolated in our communities – can grow into strong relationships. They build trust in our neighbourhoods, and can have a positive impact on the health, happiness and wellbeing of both the volunteers and the older people participating in our project. Over time, they also build the bonds of community.

These small groups will not have all the answers. Governments around the world will always have a role to play: they have to develop the frameworks and controls that suit their own unique requirements. And clearly, cultural and fiscal differences mean that solutions for elder care in Italy or Spain may not be appropriate for China or Japan or the US. But as those national governments consider their plans for how to deal with the greatest challenge of our age, they should consider the impact of unleashing autonomy and the power for localised solutions to spread and evolve through modern networks. Early investments should focus on raising that potential. That way, we will develop a series of diverse solutions, fit for diverse needs, to meet the challenge of our aging societies.


Alex Smith is the founder and chief executive of North London Cares, a social enterprise that recruits young professionals using digital technology and matches them to elderly and isolated neighbours in need of a little extra support. Previously, Alex was director of online communications and campaigns to Ed Miliband during his award-winning Labour leadership bid, and was editor and first director of one of the biggest political websites in the UK, LabourList, from 2009-2011.