Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-271)

Baroness Greengross, Professor Anthea Tinker, Dr Roger Orpwood and Professor Garth Johnson


  Q260Lord Mitchell: As an ancient entrepreneur let me comment on that. I think that it is all a question of disposable income, and in some ways the 70 and 80-year olds are the last of an era of a whole section of the population that have not typically had a large amount of disposable income. I may be wrong on this but that is my instinct on that. I think that the baby boomers are moving towards that with more disposable income. I think that is going to change dramatically because manufacturers respond to markets, they respond to opportunities, and if there is a segment there that has a lot of money to spend they will react very quickly. I am just interested whether in the United States, where presumably people in that segment have got more money to spend, there are more products available for people in that area. I do not know the answer but I just wonder.

  Baroness Greengross: I do not think there are. I think we know all about that. I do not think there are more. You get now wheelie shoppers and things because more people use them. You do get those things in our shops now and you are right, that the baby boomers are in the new market, the mass market and that this is only a question of us trying to hurry up the process of it happening.

  Dr Orpwood: There is a kind of acceptance of technology by the baby boomer generation which was not there for their predecessors. They are much more accepting of pieces of technology to support their daily activities rather than personal care from another individual.

  Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: As you were talking I was wondering whether we are just a disability averse society rather than a gadgets-for-living society. Perhaps there is a fundamental shift that needs to happen in attitude towards living rather than disability equals decline equals heading towards death, a perception which there is in the life of so many people, in order to get the entrepreneur to pick up the marketing. Perhaps gadgets-for-living might be the next Mothercare.

  Q261Baroness Walmsley: Going back to what you were saying earlier, why are the manufacturers of these aids so much more sensitive to the need for a mass market and evidence before they try anything out than, for example, the food retailing industry? There is not a big market for pickled walnuts but you can still get them in Sainsbury's. The food manufacturers are constantly trying new products. If they work they keep them and if they do not, unfortunately for those of us who happen to like them, they discontinue them. Why is it? What is the difference?

  Professor Johnson: They do not have to invest in R&D. There is no research for pickled walnuts.

  Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: There jolly well is. I do it myself.

  Q262Baroness Walmsley: There are many products that you see launched and then they disappear and the food technologists will have developed those products, so it is not a matter of there not having been any R&D behind them, but they are floated and if they do not work they disappear, and if they do work you see them carry on on the shelves. I am not clear about why there is such a difference between the manufacturers, or potential manufacturers, of some of these aids for living, or gadgets-for-living, to use Baroness Finlay's phrase, which I think she is going to patent, and the food retailers.

  Professor Johnson: The final market size in that case is important. If your pickled walnuts really are a success you may sell them to 10 million people quite easily, but if you produce some modified wheelchair device which is better for manoeuvring in bathrooms, you will probably only sell perhaps a thousand or a few thousand.

  Q263Baroness Walmsley: But I bet you make a lot more profit on your wheelchair than you will on a jar of pickled walnuts.

  Professor Johnson: I do not know that that is true, because there tends to be a monopoly of purchasers who hold prices down.

  Q264Baroness Walmsley: Ah; that might be a point.

  Professor Tinker: Also, the baby boomer generation will be much more used to labour-saving devices and if we market them that way, as labour-saving, these sensors and things which come under assistive technology, alarms and so on, they will be much more acceptable. Just think about the acceptability of a mobile phone now, which has transformed the lives of some people, for example, in residential care homes who now can make a phone call in privacy; they do not have to go to the open hall to talk their daughter or whatever. I think it is partly a generation thing which may hopefully change.

  Dr Orpwood: Also, there is an awful lot of very small companies in the whole assistive technology field. If you go to the major shows and exhibitions that these companies put on you get a large number of companies which are two or three or four-men bands making a living out of one or two products. For them, to introduce something fairly novel is a major investment and if it does fail it is something which is going to have a major impact on their business. Okay; there are other companies around who are much larger and who are able to take those kinds of risks more easily, but yes, the point you make is a valid one about why they are more risk averse than some sectors.

  Q265Lord Drayson: It sounds to me, listening to you, that this has all the hallmarks of a market that is in the very early stages of development, with small companies and a highly fragmented market. It is because the market does not yet understand the opportunity. As my noble friend remarked, as the baby boomer generation comes through this will change quite quickly. I want to pick up your point about how we can accelerate this process given that a lot of these products take a long time and a lot of money to develop. Is there an effective trade association, do you think, representing companies that focus on this market?

  Baroness Greengross: I have to say I am not quite sure what market it is we are talking about, because we have now shifted to talking about disability and if you take everybody with a disability as well as the older person, it is already a huge market. For example, in wheelchair technology I have seen some wonderful examples of lightweight wheelchairs made in Japan, but I do not know how aggressively those are marketed over here. I just do not know.

  Q266Lord Drayson: I am specifically focused on the market defined by the impact of ageing, and so technology investment into the environment and into products which assist people as they get through the ageing process. Is there an effective trade association of companies who are looking to develop products and services which addresses that market?

  Professor Tinker: There is an association, for example, for alarm manufacturers. That is an example where they have responded to the market and in particular one very large one I will not say has got a monopoly but has got very extensive coverage.

  Professor Johnson: The Foundation for Assistive Technology is a charitable organisation which essentially promotes the use of and attempts to promote research and development in assistive technology. It manages on a tiny budget and employs about two people at the moment. I work with them. The British Health Trades Association does not seem to be terribly effective as I see it in promoting the whole industry. Those are the two organisations which appear to represent the industry.

  Q267Chairman: I would guess that one of the issues relates to what the banks will lend money on, and they are much more reluctant to lend money to a small three-person company with no assets behind them than they are to, say, one of the big multiple superstores. Since the banks are now in fact much more interested in care homes for the elderly one gets the impression that there is a change in perception and even the banks are realising that there is a major market here because they are funding all sorts of things, but it has not got through to the assistive technology end. Maybe that is one of the points we might pick up, that the awareness of the banks here would make a difference in terms of who can borrow money to develop a product. One last theme that has already been touched on and keeps coming up and we are interested in your comments on is the extent to which the work in which you are engaged and have knowledge of is dealing with the problems once they have come up and they are seen as difficulties for individuals with forms of disability or what-have-you, as distinct from saying that there is actually a wholeness of life which can be continued for a much longer period and some of the focus of our energies and of the groups you represent could go in that direction. Is there a development taking place there or is it very much, "There is a problem. Let us see if we can solve it"?

  Dr Orpwood: A lot of the work that is coming in, looking at things like tele-care and smart homes, for example, has been very much focused on looking at systems which can provide security and safety within a given environment. That is fine and there are obviously issues there that need addressing, and a lot of evidence is starting to accrue as to the effectiveness of this technology. As you suggest in your comment, if you have got people in a given environment where they are nice and safe and secure they are not going to stick the cooker on and leave the gas pouring out; somebody is going to sort that out, but there is much more to their lives than just being safe and sound and secure in that situation. I think that is recognised more and more by people involved in that area of technology and there are programmes under way, and we are involved in one ourselves, looking at what aspects of quality of life, issues which older people themselves are commenting on as being crucial to their sense of having some quality of life, can be influenced through the use of new technology and new design. I am sure the potential is enormous. Our own programme has got an enormous great list of about 73 different devices that all seem to impact on quality of life, and this was for people with dementia so we are looking at quite a small sector of the elderly population.

  Q268Chairman: Could you give us some examples of the potential products?

  Dr Orpwood: The particular work I am talking about started very much as a quality of life survey, so it was looking at people with dementia, trying to see from discussions with them, with focus groups and with their carers what kinds of issues underpin their quality of life. A whole range of things came out, such as social isolation, a sense of not being in control of their lives. We pulled this lot up and we were keen to encourage all the social sciences who were not doing that work not to think about technology but just try to pull down the ideas that these people were suggesting. That was a wonderful starting point for people like Professor Johnson and myself to engage researchers in to explore ways in which new technology can have an impact in this area. Some of the ideas may sound slightly wacky but once you get involved in exploring their potential and working with people to see what impact it is having, then some of them do not seem quite so stupid. For example, in the area of trying to reduce social isolation there was some very nice work done in York looking at the impact of phone conferencing on older people, trying to give them a sense of being engaged with the local community and having a chat through phone conferencing. Actually, phone conferencing is not easy to do. You have got no eye contact, you have got no means of knowing who is about to talk or whatever, and yet people got enormous satisfaction out of that to the extent of knowing it was coming up and dressing up because they knew they were going to get their conference call in a moment.

  Q269Chairman: You do not do this in your dressing gown. Some of us saw a little bit of that a couple of weeks ago in New York. There is one very specific thing and I would be interested to know if there is any background research being done on this. I am thinking of people with dementia that is beginning to come on. One of the big things, especially if they are not 65, but equally if they are over 65, is, "Can I continue in any form of employment?". Is there any accessible source to which an employer can go—and I know of cases where this has been done on a one-to-one basis—and say, "X clearly has the following profile. I am told that Y, Z and A will happen to X. What kind of work pattern could I reasonably expect if I were to keep this individual in the company?". As I say, I know of examples where that has been done but I do not see a lot of evidence of support which can be given so that the employer can make knowledgeable judgements about that.

  Dr Orpwood: There are two sides to that. One is the advice of people who have an understanding of dementia and its progression and the impact it is going to have on their capabilities, and there are organisations around which can provide that kind of support. The other is access to some understanding of what support equipment there might be around, for example, if somebody has got a developing memory problem some kind of reminder type of device which can enable them to flag up that at half three something has not happened. Quite often these things are stuck on notepads and somebody will write down, "Half three you have got a visitor", or whatever. All the device does is make a noise so that it reminds them to think about something that is coming up. There is quite a lot of equipment like that around. One area that certainly hits you quite loudly, working with people with dementia, is that there is no collective source of information about that kind of product, there really is not. The various databases that have been set up go quite quickly out of date. We have had some discussions with a number of the marketing companies in the assistive technology area to say, "Look: there is an enormous market here. There are hundreds of products that could be applicable to people with dementia. Why do we not pull them together into some sort of catalogue?". I think we are getting some success but it is amazingly hard work to try and show them that there is a market for this kind of equipment. People do not seem to see that there is a link between dementia and supportive technology and that there is an enormous amount that can be done with fairly simple pieces of equipment.

  Q270Chairman: There is an assumption that it is all or nothing, which it is not, in fact.

  Dr Orpwood: Absolutely.

  Q271Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: Going back to my question about universities, do you think that the RMU, as it has now been re-formatted, is going to help at all or hinder?

  Professor Tinker: You may know more about this than I do but I do not think the format has changed all that dramatically. It is still going to be your four international peer reviewed articles and the amount of research that you brought in and your international reputation. Obviously, there are things to be said for that but I am not sure it is going to help people like us who are desperate to spend time disseminating and doing more research with unsexy subjects. A lot of the things are very mundane. I am sure you are looking at the extreme of assistive technology and all the wonderful new gadgets and so on, but the reality for many older people is how do you get the funding for basic adaptations, level access showers and so on, and how do you get people to know about them? It is very basic stuff and people like me do not have the resources to go round the country talking about this.

  Baroness Greengross: That is the key to this, that is where the integration needs to take place, whether it is the primary care trust or whoever has to take responsibility under the label of continuing care or whatever it is. Somebody has got to bring those things together because assistive technology is only one bit. I think we said in our evidence that there are 17 million people now with some sort of chronic condition, long term condition, and these people are not just to be thrown in the rubbish bin. There is a lot they can do but it needs to be brought together so that the research that is being done is not just wasted because it is not put to good practice. If you as the committee could influence that it would be wonderful. I am sure you can.

  Chairman: I am sure if we can we will think it is wonderful as well. I thank you very much for what has been a very interesting session. I will just repeat my request that if there are points that you think you could have developed further do let us have a response as soon as possible, because we hope to begin to pull ideas together early in the new year. Thank you very much.

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