The "Age" of Opportunity

The “Age” of Opportunity

European efforts seek to address the challenges of an aging population and also create opportunities for economic growth and innovation.

For the last ten years, Peter Wintlev-Jensen has been immersed in one of the greatest challenges the world will have to address in the decades ahead—the unprecedented aging of the population not only in Europe but also across the globe. This trend is reshaping consumer spending, challenging established economic models, driving the development of new industry and service sectors, and forcing a rethinking of key policy areas within health and social care. To quantify the challenge from a U.K. perspective, a recent report from the nonprofit organization Age UK showed that the country now has more people 60 or over than under 18 and more pensioners than children under 16. Just as striking, the number of people over 65 will rise almost 50% by 2030.

Technology will play a crucial role in defining how services are delivered to an aging population, and driving innovation is a central theme in the work of the European Commission (EC) Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content, and Technology (DG Connect), where Wintlev-Jensen is currently senior policy officer responsible for developing policies and research strategies related to information and communication technologies (ICT) and demographic aging. DG Connect handles research and development aspects of the digital sector as part of Horizon 2020, the largest-ever research and innovation program undertaken by the European Union (EU). This program is making €500 million of funding available between 2014 and 2020 for digital solutions addressing active and healthy aging and promises to take innovative ideas from the laboratory to the marketplace.

A Circuitous Path to Demographic Aging

Wintlev-Jensen is an engineer trained in systems science. Before joining the EC in 1990, he worked in the telecommunications industry as a project manager in Denmark and the United States, often on industrial computing and communications projects with companies like American Airlines and Delta. In the 1980s, he spent much of his time developing packet-switching networks for the aviation sector. His skills in advanced network management gained him an assignment to develop networks for NATO from Brussels, and his desire to remain in the city led him to a position in Research Networks with the EC, which was then funding the first Internet development in Europe.

“That was at a time when telecoms operators were not too hot on the Internet,” he remarks. “After that, I worked in education and training before I came across my current area of research as part of the EU’s focus on major societal challenges. This is a global challenge and one that provides global opportunities for European companies.”

So far, his work has encompassed the European Joint Research Program on Ambient Assisted Living and its continuation under Horizon 2020; the ICT research and innovation agenda on aging in the Seventh Framework Program and in Horizon 2020; the joint programming initiative with member states for multidisciplinary research on demographic change titled “More Years—Better Lives”; and the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) on Active and Healthy Ageing.

Maximizing Transformative Potentialities for Aging Populations

When we spoke, Wintlev-Jensen had recently returned from the second European Summit on Digital Innovation for Active and Healthy Ageing, where the focus was on harnessing the transformative potential of the EC’s digital single-market program to develop joint actions and maximize the benefits of digital innovation for Europe’s and the world’s aging population.

IEEE Pulse: What are the goals of the unit that you lead?

Peter Wintlev-Jensen: DG Connect is responsible for digital, technology, and media policy, and I am senior policy developer in the field of eHealth, wellbeing, and aging. For ten years, I have been looking at how digital solutions can not only respond to the problem of aging but also stimulate economic growth opportunities. There are aspects of policy, technology, and funding in my work, though we do not dictate the health and social policy of EU member states. We focus on innovation and how to stimulate that.

We have launched many initiatives focused on a triple win: delivering better health and quality of life for citizens, developing more sustainable health and care systems, and creating new jobs and opportunities for industry. This comes through funding longer-term and applied research and working on how to bring innovative solutions to market. The biggest challenge is in the application of innovative ideas. Europe is a fragmented market with many small companies, so we could gain a lot by joining up public procurement programs and looking at the macroeconomic impact of innovation spending within health and social policy. The digital single market is important for removing barriers and creating a level playing field on important regulatory areas such as interoperability, data exchange, and data privacy.

IEEE Pulse: What are the economic opportunities in this emerging “silver economy”?

Wintlev-Jensen: So far, we are underexploiting innovation compared to the €1 trillion spent in Europe each year on health and social policy programs. The system is set up for acute care, not for people to live for a longer time with multiple chronic conditions. We need to break down the silos between different areas of spending. For instance, improving hospital efficiency by reducing unnecessary occupation by older people of emergency rooms through increased focus on home care would have a big impact. We need to be smart on policy and look also at areas such as digital skills for home [caregivers] as an opportunity for attracting more young people to care jobs.

Technology and investment know no borders, so we need to attract investment into Europe through returns on investment. We have to look at global opportunities, too, through the global value chain. Spending on health and social care represents up to 10% of gross domestic product (GDP), so that could be a big opportunity if even a small portion of that money is spent on innovation in areas that help Europe, such as combined procurement programs. The EIP on Active and Healthy Ageing, for instance, provides a framework for voluntary collaboration between local and regional programs at the European level.

EIPs are an important part of the EU’s challenge-driven approach to research and innovation, and they involve all of the relevant stakeholders at EU, national, and regional levels to share innovation practices and step up deployment, coordinate investments, provide input to the development of appropriate regulation, and stimulate demand. The goal is to ensure that breakthroughs are quickly brought to market.

IEEE Pulse: Why is this the preferred approach?

Wintlev-Jensen: This means strategic directions can be developed through voluntary collaboration rather than through top-down regulation. Health and social policy is under the responsibility of member states, but the EU can help to stimulate and accelerate the take-up of new ideas across Europe. For example, we are currently supporting the development of a “blueprint for digital transformation of health and care,” which brings together a common vision and investment commitments by the demand and supply side to help scale up public and private investments in large-scale deployment of innovative solutions for health and care. This in turn helps, in particular, smaller companies scale up and attract investments.

We must find a balance between the cost of innovation and the return on investment. Health and care systems are under strain, so there is no guarantee of immediate and positive returns. So we provide a means for sharing risk, best practice, and procurement. We are already cofunding joint procurement for new products and services that have not been scaled up yet. There is also a need to introduce demand-side incentives for innovation. For example, the United States has introduced legislation to reduce reimbursement if people are readmitted to hospital too soon after treatments to help accelerate innovation investment decisions. Part of the problem is that technology advances so fast that it can be hard to translate its potential into a safe strategy for investment.

IEEE Pulse: What role will new technological solutions play in addressing chronic conditions and keeping people out of intensive-care facilities?

Wintlev-Jensen: Older people may have multiple chronic conditions for which they need support. We need to package that support to develop a business model that can deliver all of the services a person needs. Analysis of big data is helpful in the early diagnosis of many conditions. For instance, changes in patterns of sleeping or eating may help to detect conditions such as diabetes or cognitive impairment earlier.

Prevention is better than cure, but that needs policy innovation. We need a positive business case for prevention because the traditional business model is based on payment for treatment. Increasing the level of self-management requires societal change, but there is an urgent need to reorganize how we manage such things. One way is to use a person’s own data to engage them with the consequences for their health, rather than using other people’s data. We are now looking at ways to present data in a more persuasive way in order to get individuals to change how they do things.

In addition, nearly 80% of noncommunicable diseases are preventable, and there are many ways in which technology could help to keep people with chronic conditions out of hospital and residential-care facilities. This would require more emphasis on creating living environments that are conducive to patients’ self-management of the conditions commonly associated with aging, which would free up a lot of resources. People prefer to live in their own homes, but 70% of homes are not suitable for an aging population. So, we could invest in upgrading homes in order to reduce the need for institutional care. There are solutions that could, for example, reduce the risk of falling. We could use subsidies and tax breaks, for example, as ways to turn challenges into opportunities.

IEEE Pulse: What are the biggest challenges that must be overcome to realize these goals?

Wintlev-Jensen: We can predict the changing demographics well ahead of time, so we can react and develop policies suitable to address the problem. We can use that policy, stimulate investment, scale up technology, and develop new skills. Innovation is no use if the technology stays on the shelf in a university. Changes are needed in the areas of technology, policy, and regulation. We are working to bring big and small industry on board with priorities set by the public sector.

Engagement is not always straightforward. There is not necessarily a perceived common interest among all parties, but the pressure on existing systems is so great that action needs to be taken. There is no way forward without innovation, change, and risk-taking in a way that is predictable and manageable. Our role is to give certainty to these partnerships and help both small and large companies to work together to identify markets. Big structural change requires sticking to a long-term strategy if we are to reach our goals efficiently. If we don’t change, we will add up to 5% of GDP to spending on the problems of aging, which will be compounded by a shrinking labor market. So, we have to use this trend to stimulate the economy.

Finding the Place Where Technology and Policy Meet

Specific ICT solutions that will have a significant impact include nano- and microtechnologies for sensors because they could help to make monitoring solutions less intrusive while improving data gathering and promoting self-management. Overall, a broad spectrum of technologies is under the microscope including robotics, the Internet of Things, mobile technologies, and much more. Ultimately, Wintlev-Jensen believes that ICT-based products and services could turn these challenges into a €3 trillion opportunity for Europe. The real key, however, is to keep public and private stakeholders in line with a long-term plan to achieve meaningful change.

The EC is working hard to develop a long-term vision that supports technological innovation through investment and policy initiatives and that is likely to have a significant impact on both the competitiveness of the European economy and the quality of life of older generations. Its success rests on the engagement of stakeholders in both the private and public sectors, but the process of combining innovation with political will seems to be well under way.