Technology, Cultural Heritage and Community Development: Tackling the Challenge of the Ageing Society - RSA

Technology, Cultural Heritage and Community Development: Tackling the Challenge of the Ageing Society


  • Picture of David John Wortley FRSA
    David John Wortley FRSA
  • Future of Work
  • Employment
  • Sustainability
  • Communities

For most of human history, cultural identity, place and people have been the key economic drivers behind community development and the reason why people choose places to live and work. Families lived and worked in the same area for generations, and stories were passed down from grandparents and parents to shape the perception and value of the place called home.

The sustainability and livelihood of physical communities in a globalised society depends on their ability to leverage the potential of all their assets, both human and physical, and to harness the positive elements of technology and re-establish and promote their cultural identity to the world. This ability to create a differentiated and unique identity is important in attracting people and commerce to a region, location or institution.

The Challenge of the Ageing Society

The problems of the Ageing Society grow more serious by the day. Greater longevity and length of time in retirement, lifestyle related medical conditions such as obesity, cancer and cardiovascular diseases, and the dwindling ratio of employed versus unemployed or retired people not only places an increasing and unsustainable cost burden on society but it also is likely to be a cause of social unrest and societal divisions. Some of the issues are summarised below:

• Increased longevity with associated health problems is an increasingly unsustainable cost burden to society.
• Most approaches to the use of technology for independent living seek directly or indirectly to reduce the cost burden of the elderly rather than develop the ‘silver economy’.
• Redundancy or retirement often brings with it social isolation, a loss of self-worth and a sense of being ‘on the scrap-heap’, with consequential mental and physical decline. (Older people generally want to make a contribution to society after retirement and many want to continue in meaningful employment as long as possible.)
• In a world where developments in technologies like AI and IOT will severely impact employment opportunities for all ages, older people cannot compete for jobs that require physical strength, mental agility and IT literacy.

The growing challenge, therefore, as well as trying to reduce the cost burden of elderly people, is how to enable older people to be economically productive for longer. This significant challenge is made worse by technological advances in AI, Robotics, IOT and other areas that will inevitably lead to a substantial reduction in available jobs and more competition to fill those jobs. Since older people lack the physical strength, mental agility and technology literacy of younger generations, we need to find ways to harness the positive characteristics of ageing to create economic opportunities where the elderly have a competitive advantage. Some of these advantages are listed below:

• Older people have had life experiences that younger people have not, which enables them to easily relate to situations similar to those they have encountered before.
• Many employers value the traditional work ethics of older people, who come from a generation likely to remain loyal to one or two employers in their lifetime.

Digital Heritage and the Ageing Society

Not only are there advantages to including older people in our local economies, their memories and life experiences are also a precious societal asset that is currently under-exploited and under-valued. 360-degree ‘Virtual Reality’ technologies provide an opportunity to capture and share this human heritage and not only preserve it for future generations but also provide an opportunity to develop community identity and bring generations together. Also, there are commercial opportunities to use the technologies for a host of applications, such as virtual tours and immersive training solutions, which could help to sustain the ongoing development of local cultural heritage.

Case Study: Market Harborough ComKnet Project (1998−2000), Leveraging Cultural Heritage to Engage the Community

Market Harborough is set in rural Leicestershire and, like many market towns, it has seen the effects of globalisation and the loss of local services as well as a high street populated with charity shops.

In 1998, the UK Government launched an award scheme called MMDP (Multimedia Demonstrator Program) for consortium project ideas that would boost the use of multimedia and the Internet amongst SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises). A local high-tech SME, Mass Mitec, operating from a converted barn in the village of Lubenham, devised the Community Commerce and Knowledge Network (ComKnet) project based on the creation of a community portal to encourage knowledge sharing and trading, and formed a consortium of local partners to build a network of community champions.

The inspiration behind this ambition was the fact that over 150 years earlier, a resident of Market Harborough, Thomas Cook, had used the emerging communications network of his day (the railways) to open up new horizons and opportunities for ordinary people. This created a shared vision to make Market Harborough once again a leader in the use of communications technology.

A video of the project, available on YouTube, was made by two local residents (one an ex-BBC senior cameraman and the other a special effects expert who works on Harry Potter films). The Comknet project also won the attention and support of the newly appointed E-Envoy, Alex Allan, which led to an invitation for the Comknet team to interview him at Downing Street. This video interview (which the ComKnet team scripted) is also on YouTube.

Through innovative uses of technology, ComKnet successfully brought £250k investment into the local economy and substantially raised its profile nationally and internationally. Their work included one of the first global webinars in 2000 and, in 2002, the first community radio show to combine local radio with teleconferencing and virtual classroom technologies − ‘The Radio with Pictures Show’. This weekly radio chat show was the first of its kind, certainly in community radio, and contributed to the eventual full-time radio station HFM, which is still in daily operation and is an important news hub for the local community.

Perhaps most importantly, the Comknet project brought together older and younger generations, local media, small businesses and local and regional government to endorse a shared vision.

In Conclusion

Technologies that help older people to leverage the characteristics that give them an advantage over younger people (for example more life experience, better local knowledge, more spare time and traditional work ethics) and enable them to contribute economically are likely to improve their physical and mental health as well as contribute to a more integrated, inter-generational society.

David Wortley FRSA is the CEO and founder of 360in360 Immersive Experiences.


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