Over the last years the EU has been funding many projects in the area of active and healthy ageing. The Giraff+ project developed a companion robot, to help older people feel safe and secure in their own environment, and also keep them active and connected to the outside world. Technology was not the issue; plenty of robots on the market with the right functionalities. The real problem was the interplay between woman and machine. How to ensure people perceive the robot as a nice house-guest rather than Big Brother or a Space Invader? And how to make the robot a trusted intermediary between older persons, their carers and their family? By literally giving it a human face and ensuring real people do real communication. One of the robots was tested by the 94 year old Nonna Lea. She calls him Mister Robin and, after some time living together, she is still happy with his company and support. She even writes about him in her daily blog, as you can see in this video. Giraff+ is now getting ready for the next steps – towards wider deployment and the market.
Which takes me to the Ambient Assisted Living Joint Programme (AAL JP). The last six years all accross Europe it has driven applied research on assistive technologies (like robots) for older people. Many small companies participated, it was truly European, and outputs where practical, usable and often almost market-ready. Some factors contributed to these successes. First, it was member state driven, so you got in comparatively easily via national procedures. Hence the high SME participation (over 350 enterprises, or 40%). Each project had to have at least three Member States on board, so European interoperability and usability was taken care of. Finally two things were done to ensure that the brilliant scientists would come up with stuff that people actually like. In each project 'real people' (users) had to be involved, and the calls for proposals regarded real people's problems. For example: how might ICT help prevent older people get lonely? Or how could ICT improve the work environment, so ageing people don't drop out? In fact, it was all about the human face of ICT.
The most difficult phase for projects starts after they stop; how to get products and services for ageing well into the houses of the users, and integrated in the systems for health and care? The AAL JP formula seems to work: 50% of the AAL JP projects have secured intellectual property rights or even financing beyond the project duration. And some are already busy going commercial. All good reasons for Council to approve the AAL JP to go for a second round, till 2020. Some improvements were made to the original formula. The new AAL keeps the acronym, but has a slightly different name (Ambient becomes Active), because its action area has been widened to match with the ICT-scope of the European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing. Both programmes reinforce each other to boost deployment at European scale. On the new menu will be items like telehealth and telecare for fall prevention, medication adherence and age-friendly environments. Users will be involved in all stages of project development and new players will be attracted with new types of support (prizes and innovation grants). Think web entrepreneurs and mobile app developers.
AAL JP will make an important contribution to EU policy goals: active and healthy ageing of course, but also better systems for health and care. Also it will help us tap the potential of the fast growing silver economy, and it will create more user centred projects like Giraff+, showing the human face of ICT and helping lovely ladies like Nonna Lea live healthy, independently and actively for more years. That's how Europe has made me happy today.