Here in the United States, independence is a big deal. We celebrate Independence Day every summer and almost all adults pursue their vision of independence every day of the year. Our shared cultural history also provides us with a reminder about the true nature of independence. E Pluribus Unum— out of many, one. The best kind of independence is the kind that lets us be independent— together.
It’s also true that American culture has never really dealt with the jarring dissonance it has created between Aging and Independence. On the “aging” side of the equation we are living in a golden age of longevity, more people in more places are living longer than ever. Hooray! But… On the “independence” side of the equation we have long identified independence with youth. Older people have been told that they must do whatever they can for as long as they can to stave off their descent into dependence. This struggle has also called forth an enormous (and enormously powerful) multi-hundred billion dollar industry that consists entirely of programs and facilities designed to manage dependency in old age.
Things are about to change. We are seeing the outlines of a new movement that disrupts the conventional narrative surrounding aging. I call this stirring within our culture “Independence Rising.” There is a new story being told and it goes something like this:
The opportunity to live in the place and manner of one’s own choosing should not be restricted by age or ability.
The truth is that living in the place and manner of your choosing depends on the health of your community. And community health in turn is based on the level of interconnection and interdependence between community members. The more segregated your community is by age and ability, the weaker it is. The more diverse and integrated, the stronger it it is. Aging and Independence only flourish in healthy, interconnected communities.
How do we build healthier communities? I believe we need to take into account what I call the innovation “triple alloy” combining architecture, technology and culture, in order to envision a world where independence and aging go together— like a wink and a smile. It is always tempting to take the easier route by applying only one dimension of the triple alloy to a challenge. But this results in short-sighted problem-dependent solutions that do nothing to change the status quo.
In order to distinguish which organizations or innovations are bound to the narrative of decline, and which are in pursuit of independence at every age, we need only ask a simple question:
“Does your service/facility/product profit from your customers becoming weaker, more frail and socially isolated?
Does your service/facility/product profit from your customers becoming stronger, more purposeful and better connected to the world around them?”
This is how I am choosing to judge my own work. I am consciously reorienting myself towards the goal of helping people become independent— together. Independence Rising is a movement that breathes life into what will likely become a booming new sector in the aging services economy and I am trying my best to play a helpful role in this revolution. Before Thanksgiving I gave the keynote at Aging2.0 Optimize in San Francisco (watch the speech below). In that speech, I outlined three significant Independence Rising initiatives I am pursuing in 2018 based on the Triple Alloy lens:
- Architecture: My new startup Minka has pioneered a system for robotically printing modular, panelized compact houses that are optimized for independence at every age. (See MyMinka.com and sign up to be the first to know about where this journey is taking us.)
- Technology: I’m developing my MESH (Move, Eat, Sleep and Heal) Methodology into an evidence-based operating system for technologies aiming to help people recover, protect and extend their independence in later life.
- Culture: MAGIC stands for “Multi-Ability, multiGenerational, Inclusive, Communities.” The concept comes directly from conversations we’ve had with thousands of people in the more than 125 cities that have hosted the ChangingAging Tour since 2014 — people who care about aging and independence want to make MAGIC happen. In 2018 we will pioneer MAGIC as a method of community engagement that leverages Minka architecture and MESH technology to help people envision and then create communities rich in reciprocity and social capital. We are launching MAGIC in partnership with the Universtiy of Southern Indiana and you can read a teaser about this project in Senior Housing News this week.
Minka, MESH, and MAGIC— who knows, they might become the “3M” of a whole new industry.
Aging 2.0 Optimize 2017 Keynote by Dr. Bill Thomas
Sheila Smith says
The New York Times published an article on March 7, 2018 about the 2018 Pritzer Prize for top architecture being awarded to Balkrishna Doshi. Discussing the role of architecture and planning Doshi states “Housing as shelter is but one aspect of those projects”. His projects span a 70 year career. Described as communal spaces with emphasis on “moving together”, spaces were designed to “foster the exchange of ideas…with and eye towards seeding miniature societies that the residents can expand and animate over time”.
Doshi states ” Architecture is not a static building – it’s a living organism”.
Consistent with Minka, MESH and MAGIC and very much needed.