By 2050, elderly people aged between 65-79 years old are expected to make up almost a third of the population - a rise of 44 percent compared to the start of the century. As for very elderly people (80+), their share of the total population could grow by 180 percent over the same period.
This ageing population - due to the combined effect of increasing life expectancy and falling birth rates - poses enormous economic and social challenges for society. Experts already paint very gloomy pictures for employment, health care and pensions, predicting spiralling costs and overstretched service-providers. They also highlight difficulties in harmonising the different national social-care systems now in operation across Europe.
Yet demographic change also offers new business and economic opportunities, not least for Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) products and services. Which is why Europe is gearing up to launch the Ambient Assisted Living (AAL) programme, inspired by ambient intelligence and concentrating on users' needs.
"Nobody doubts the urgency of the AAL initiative", stated Michael Huch, co-ordinator of the IST project AAL. The AAL products and services aims to extend the time people live at home by increasing their autonomy and self-confidence, reduce by half the costs associated with elderly care. "But Europe first needs a convincing and workable co-operation model for the support of this innovation", he added. "Our project's proposals have already been accepted by all 11 Member States involved, including Switzerland and Israel."
A major recommendation is to assess the needs of users before launching any AAL products or services. That means looking at differences between the target groups - elderly and disabled people, and those who believe they are disabled - and disparities between countries. In southern Europe, for example, more people live with their children than in the north of the continent. On the other hand, broadband access to the Internet, seen as vital for delivering AAL services such as telemedicine, is more commonly available in northern European countries.
AAL recognises ICT's potential in areas such as safety and security, care and comfort. Applications can be delivered through new materials, embedded systems, innovative hardware and software. But it warns against overly complex solutions - such as a robotic window cleaner, when self-cleaning windows would suffice - and over-reliance on technology.
"We foresee a combination of sensors, microsystems and new innovative services", added Michael Huch, emphasising they must be user-friendly, affordable and reliable. The project also recommends that Europe concentrates on high-quality and sophisticated technologies, and product concepts.
To link national and European work on AAL, the project partners first assessed ministries, national programme agencies and research institutes. "Now we are aiming more at the political levels, such as ministries with funding programmes", stated Michael Huch. The partners conclude that policy action is necessary to boost AAL opportunities and to overcome barriers to it. At European level, the right policies could stimulate or better match supply and demand in the AAL sector. National policies would target social, cultural and care-system differences.
The project recommends a single new "Ambient Assisted Living - 169" programme, linking national technology funding programmes with European Commission funding based on Article 169 of the European treaty, which allows new forms of joint R&D activities between European Union Member States.
"Although Article 169 triggers new forms of European co-operation for the public sector, such as networks of excellence, we prefer more specialisation", stated Michael Huch. This could involve small European projects, with five partners maximum, co-operating with national funding agencies and ministries. Projects would run for seven years in parallel with Seventh Framework Programme for resesearch and start in 2007, pending a co-decision by the European Parliament and Council.
"We propose a new common programme with users grouped in consortia", he added. "We are also working on a co-operation model for this and terms of reference for each body." The national ministries - the programme owners - will be represented in a steering committee. Financial responsibility for the programme's operation would be spread 50/50 between Member States and the European Commission.
National money would stay in the countries, with the European Union making up the difference. A small association would be set up as a contractual partner for the Commission, with all Member States as members, to receive Commission money and transfer money to the countries.
Michael Huch expects this AAL programme to have a big impact, creating a real market for assisted-living products in the health, information, communications, social networking and daily chores sectors. He added: "It would also generate widespread political belief in services, a new feature of the projects. With this more flexible thinking, the health care sector could become more involved in European initiatives of this kind."
For more information, you can contact Michael Huch, VDI/VDE Innovation + Technik GmbH, Steinplatz 1, D-10623 Berlin, Germany, Tel: +49-30-310078193, Fax: +49-30-310078225, or visit the AAL project Web site.
This article has been reprinted from the IST Results Web site.