Nº 10 2013 > Academia — Innovating for society

Ageing society and ICT
A new growth industry?

Naoko Iwasaki, Associate Professor at the Institute of e‑Government, Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan

Naoko Iwasaki, Associate Professor at the Institute of e‑Government, Waseda University, Tokyo, JapanJapanese actress Shinobu Otake displays the "Raku-Raku smartphone" designed for the elderly
Naoko Iwasaki, Associate Professor at the Institute of e‑Government, Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan
Japanese actress Shinobu Otake displays the "Raku-Raku smartphone" designed for the elderly

Societies are ageing throughout the world, and information and communication technologies (ICT) offer responses to this dynamic social change. A good ICT policy will provide the services and tools that match the needs of elderly people. It is especially important to improve their accessibility of e‑services as a way of enhancing their daily lives. There are four areas in which ICT can play an essential role for elderly people: infrastructure; lifelines; communications; and enhancement of the richness of daily life. In Japan, for example, older people particularly appreciate applications that offer them access to social welfare services and regional activities. They also benefit from access to educational opportunities, for example through Internet classrooms.

Japan as a forerunner of ageing societies

Japan has the highest ratio in the world of 65-year-olds to total population — at 25.1 per cent in 2013. It also has the longest life expectancy. In 2012, the average lifespan was 79 years for men and 86 years for women. The ageing society will pose a challenge not only to Japan but to all countries of the world.

Although at present the percentage of elderly people in developing countries is relatively low, according to United Nations estimates their proportion is increasing more rapidly in those countries than in developed ones. Thus, developing countries will have less time to adjust to the consequences of population ageing. Since the 1980s, there have been more older people in developing countries than in developed ones. In China alone, the number of people over 60 years of age is expected to reach 400 million (26 per cent of the total population) by 2040, which is more than the combined current populations of France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom. There is no time to lose in putting policies in place to respond to the needs of elderly citizens.

European and Asian countries, such as China and the Republic of Korea, are watching how Japan is preparing for its silver society. Japan has an opportunity to construct a model for the efficient use of ICT in an ageing society. 

Social consequences of Japan’s ageing population

About 40 per cent of the total population of Japan in 2050 will be aged 65 years or more. Not only that, but the total population of Japan has been decreasing gradually since 2004. Japan is the only society in the world today that is experiencing both population decrease and super ageing. This social change will make current policies obsolete and will require new approaches.

The statistics presented in the table indicate some of the social trends associated with the ageing population in Japan, but they do not paint the full picture. Based on the statistics available in 2013, it is expected that 40 years from now, the total population of Japan will have decreased by more than a quarter.

“According to a survey of about 300 people aged over 60 years carried out by the Institute of e‑Government, Waseda University, and other research centres, some 80 per cent of elderly citizens in Japan can be categorized as “active ageing”. About 80 per cent of retired people are looking for jobs but only 20 per cent of them can get jobs.

Accessibility and usability

According to a survey of some 300 people aged over 55 years carried out in 2010 by the Institute of e‑Government, 80 per cent of respondents were able to use ICT and did so every day. Of these, 50 per cent learned how to use the devices on their own, while 20 per cent were taught by others; and 18 per cent considered that no learning or teaching was needed because the devices could be intuitively understood and 6 per cent found that the instructions for use of the devices were easy to follow. Most elderly people in Japan can use a mobile phone and the mobile Internet. Those who cannot use these ICT tools want to be able use them if they have the opportunity to learn how.

Silver ICT business

Older people hold 60 per cent of all individual financial assets in Japan, worth 1.6 quadrillion yen. Half of national healthcare expenditure is spent on people aged over 65 years. About 70 per cent of people injured during major disasters, such as the 2011 tsunami, are elderly.

The potential range of the ICT market serving elderly consumers — which we call the silver ICT business — is extremely wide in Japan, including e‑participation, e‑government and e‑health (see chart). These industries will expand more and more with the super-ageing of society in the future. ICT devices and tools that older people find convenient to use will help to bridge the digital divide that currently exists between active and inactive elderly citizens, and may become their lifeline in the event of a disaster.

How much of a market could the silver business create? According to a Waseda University estimate, the size of a silver ICT business could reach a value of 1 USD trillion by 2035.

One of the challenges faced in an ageing society is the lesser physical capability of older people. This is a challenge that ICT may be able to overcome. For example, in 2001 NTT DOCOMO pioneered the introduction of a mobile phone, the Raku-Raku phone, that elderly people find easy to use. Social media such as Twitter, Facebook and LINE are now part of our daily lives, and played an important role in disseminating information during the disaster that hit Japan in March 2011.

Research needs and collaborative efforts

The ageing of society will shape Japan’s future. Given the challenges, it is important to explore and promote ICT-enabled innovations to meet the special needs of older people.

The first step is to review current public initiatives such as e‑health and e‑accessibility, and to assess the extent to which infrastructure, devices, interfaces, services and applications meet the requirements of elderly people in Japan.

In order to find solutions to the challenges posed by an ageing society, the Institute of e‑Government, Waseda University, is cooperating with ITU, as well as Asia-Pacific Cooperation (APEC), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), among other international organizations.

An APEC-funded project has created an effective platform for knowledge exchange on innovation for assistive ICT applications for the ageing and for people with disabilities. The project has evaluated experiences in implementing these technologies and providing associated training in participating economies. It has also created a new business model for silver ICT innovation.

As a part of an OECD initiative in 2011, Japan along with Denmark, Finland, Italy, the Republic of Korea and Sweden explored effective measures to foster the development of a silver ICT economy. They concluded that the most important step is to create an effective platform for knowledge exchange on how constantly evolving ICT can be applied to meet the needs of a rapidly ageing population.

Since 2005, UNESCO’s UNITWIN Network has worked to provide assistance in looking for solutions to the various challenges of e‑disaster education and to offer recommendations on improving the implementation of e‑public safety.

ITU could lead the world community in this field. The standardization of ICT devices will improve usability and accessibility, supported by an ICT literacy programme for the elderly. Specific suggestions arising from research undertaken at Waseda University include building an institutional framework for convergence between the information society and ageing society, using Japan as a testbed for ICT innovations to assist elderly people, and strengthening international collaboration between ITU, OECD, APEC and UNESCO to form a silver ICT network.

About the author

Naoko Iwasaki received her master’s degree and PhD from Waseda University, Tokyo. Her research interests focus on the convergence between the information society and the ageing society, as well as on the role of chief information officer in the private and public sectors. Her publications include “Aging society and ICT” and “Silver ICT innovation saves super aging society”.


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