National

'Living labs' bring old and young together to tap community expertise

Kyodo

Companies, research institutes and local governments are working with people across the country to find solutions to real-life problems, especially loneliness in old age, based on the concept of a “living lab” to promote regional growth.

Using a model gaining popularity worldwide that originated mainly from Europe, projects and experiments bring together the elderly and the young and involve them in helping develop products and services intended for their use.

Itoki Co., a major office furniture company, recently ran trials of a desk prototype designed for easy home use. Participants who gathered at the company’s facility in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, were invited to share their feedback.

“Kamakura Living Lab,” which was launched in January last year, is a collaboration between Itoki and a few other companies, as well as the Kamakura Municipal Government, the University of Tokyo and the neighborhood association of the city’s Imaizumidai district.

Companies other than Itoki are also introducing similar research on support robots and next-generation products for transport and personal care, among others.

The generation of people who migrated to the district in Kamakura — a Tokyo commuter town — during the era of high economic growth in the mid-1950s to early 1970s, has now grown older. Of around 5,000 residents in the district, 45 percent are aged 65 or above.

Masaaki Kuzuya, 57, a researcher at Itoki’s Work Style Institute, said: “Normally, the ‘maker’ and ‘user’ are separate, but here everyone is a developer,” he said.

The desk is expected to go on sale this year. “It’s exciting because our opinions are reflected in the product,” said a 49-year-old local housewife who helped with its development.

The living lab concept is based on a “co-creation” approach that integrates research and innovation within a public-private-people partnership.

Living labs can be found at around 150 locations worldwide, mainly in Europe. Japan has living labs at some 30 locations, including Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, and Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is also backing the living lab concept with subsidies.

Kamakura Living Lab has links with Sweden where the concept first emerged. Sweden is developing living lab projects in both countries focused on active aging. “We are proposing addressing loneliness by connecting different generations,” said Mathilda Tham, a professor of design from Linnaeus University who is leading the project between the two countries.

“Loneliness among elderly people is a big problem in Sweden also. The living lab can provide platforms where people can meet. We have noticed that all the people want to share their skills.”

Hiroko Akiyama, a specially appointed professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Gerontology where the project is being promoted, suggests local governments get involved in forming policies for their own communities.

“It seems more effective to ask residents about their specific needs for their daily lives than a panel of experts,” said Akiyama. “I want local governments to change their way of thinking and utilize this concept in policy planning.”