At the time of the project, much existing work on how new digital technologies might benefit older people had involved devices to ensure people’s safety to support ‘ageing in place’. Such work is valuable, but runs the risk of casting older people narrowly in terms of frailty and need.

In contrast, we developed technologies and systems that created an occasion for intergenerational engagement with issues of place, environment, and community in a fashion intended to delight and connect people as well as to inform and support them.


  • Peter Wright, Newcastle University

  • Bill Gaver, Goldsmiths College

  • John Bowers, Goldsmiths College

  • Mark Blythe, University of York


Age Concern York


Peter Wright

Aims and objectives

The proposal aimed to answer three related questions concerning the roles and potential of emerging interactive digital technologies:

  1. How can emerging interactive technologies and media be used to facilitate older people's sense of locality and place which are key elements of identity and citizenship in old age, and how through the sharing of narratives and engagement with the wider public can older people be given a voice in the community?

  2. How can excluded older people be given a stronger voice and clearer representation in the process of designing new digital technologies?

  3. What are people’s experience of growing old and growing up and the changing relationship with their technological, physical, social and cultural contexts?


Our methodological approach was to focus our research questions on three case studies as follows:

Case study one: Window on the world (w-o-w)

Aim: To engage our volunteer user groups with reflection on the possible roles of technology in the process of ageing using w-o-w technologies as stimulus for participation and dialogue.

“W-o-w” focuses on engagement with the locale to explore issues of mobility, sense of place and connectedness with the physical environment and with the community. Novel technology was used to bring the near environment into the home of the user. For example, video cameras might be used to bring scenic views into the home, and small screen-based devices may be used to present ambient information about local issues, groups and events.

The intention here was both to stimulate greater engagement with the local environment, and to raise community issues for further discussion as part of later participatory design meetings.

Case study two: Digital place

Aim: Expand from home and environs to the issue of cross-generational communication and community and adopt virtual environment applications to the needs of the group for multi-generational dialogue.

“Digital Place” focused on virtual environments as a medium for older people to work together with younger people. There are a range of technologies that are readily available on-line that support communities of usually younger people. These include You-Tube, My-Space and Second Life.

We brought our older participants together with younger volunteers who have some familiarity with these technologies and worked with them to design and build their own ‘meeting place’ in a virtual environment.

The adaptations required to make older users feel comfortable with these forms of engagement was an important research question. In addition, observing this process of engagement allowed us to explore the construction of a community and the appropriation of technology.

Case study three: Engagement in the public sphere

Aim: To provide the community with innovative technology for public engagement with issues of ageing in 21st century.

“Public Sphere” focussed on providing our group of older and younger people with a presence in the local community. We developed artefacts that embedded not only public displays but allowed for some form of interaction with the viewer (eg bulletin boards, simple wikis). These were sited in places likely to stimulate different kinds of viewer eg youth club, city centre square, school, cinema.

In this way the technology explored active engagement between older people and differently placed others. One of the sites was a gallery where we mounted an exhibition. This served not only as a study in public engagement but also disseminated our project work.