What Can the Bra Teach us About Ageism and Innovation? Quite a Bit, Actually

Much of what masquerades as innovation in fact institutionalises ageism, writes Council on the Ageing (COTA) SA’s Jane Mussared.

The bra of 2017 comes in every imaginable shade, in at least 36 sizes, comes with a joey pocket to stash your phone, is invisible, washable, can be worn on the inside or the outside and even, in some of the latest iterations, is said to be close to detecting breast cancer.

But the bra comes from pretty ordinary beginnings. The precursors to the modern bra – including the corset – were first worn as early as the 14th century. They were conceived, invented, manufactured and taken to market by men for women – and they didn’t take off. Under the cover of many layers of clothes, women were secretly making all sorts of modifications to make horrific contraptions almost tolerable.

The big breakthrough came when a woman, Herminie Cadolle (herself the owner of a pair of breasts), invented the wellbeing bra. It first appeared in a catalogue in 1889 and cut the traditional corset in two. This radical redesign shifted focus away from corsetry that had fought the female form in a bid to reshape and constrict, to a device that started to embrace women’s bodies. It paid attention to function and comfort and was said to be the bra that freed women.

The bra has gone from strength to strength with an average of $16 billion spent on bras each year. So what was the turning point? Women were involved in all stages of the design. It turns out that the problem the bra was to fix was not, as early male designers had guessed, to change the shape and aesthetic of the female body. It was to support the wildly different shapes and sizes of breasts while women ran, worked, danced, debated and bred.

So what has this got to do with the older South Australians that we so proudly represent? It turns out, the story of the bra and services and products for older people are not all that different. The same two success criteria are evident in great innovation for older people. The first is that innovation must shift the way we value ageing. We must overturn ageism and stop guessing what might help older people live. Indeed much of what masquerades at the moment as innovation in fact institutionalises ageism.

The second success factor is that innovation must liberate the most powerful force of innovation and social change – older people themselves.

Enter Living Labs. The iMinds iLab.o based in Belgium, is a Living Lab that offers a test and experimentation platform to innovators including a representative test panel of more than 10,000 users.

There are other useful elements, too – a dedicated back-office platform, business-model simulation tools and application prototyping expertise. It is, as good living labs are, an ecosystem of innovation where end-users become part of the design partnership.

In 2017, no one would have the gumption, or indeed stupidity, to invent bras for women without women. It would be an investment disaster. Why then do we still invent on behalf of older people?

In 2015, Adelaide hosted a technology challenge as part of a global ageing innovation initiative. Seven local start-up companies pitched for support for their technology solutions so they could showcase them and get access to venture capital.

It was a terrific initiative, except that every single invention required that older people live in an institution – a pill crushing machine, a gait monitor, a frame to help people get out of bed that another person first had to fetch for them.

This is despite the fact that only five per cent of the three-million Australians aged over 65 live in nursing homes – the rest live at home with every fibre of their body and every penny in their pocket invested in mastering their own homes, living independently and never leaving.

Older people all over the world are cutting up their metaphorical bras, adjusting under their layers to make things that don’t fit work. They crave aesthetic appeal in equipment that has therapeutic stamped all over it. Now they want a place inside the lab. Living Labs have the potential to create communities of end-users and producers interacting in real-life settings whether virtual or actual, and overcoming failures in the innovation process by involving users from the outset. Who knows what they will define as their priorities to be fixed? Could it be houses that can last a lifetime, packaging that even the least dextrous of fingers can open, or a dating solution for the over 75s?

Our challenge in South Australia, as outlined in COTA SA’s 2017/18 State Budget Submission, is to learn from the lessons of the past and embrace an innovative solution that will stand us apart, by engaging people power in design.

Living Labs must involve older people not just in testing someone else’s solution to a problem they didn’t know they had, but in defining the problem in the first place.

And then, imagine, iterating potential solutions, and, if they like them, assisting in selling and teaching others about those solutions. The bra is an uplifting story of innovation. Even the cleverest men cannot design for women’s bodies without women. Our cleverest SA designers equally cannot invent solutions for older people without older people.

Jane Mussared is the chief executive of COTA SA, an older people’s movement run by, for and with older people.

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