Smart and inclusive – Opinion

A complete ecosystem for digital technology-enabled elderly care services


Aging is a major global trend of the 21st century. In East Asia, Japan, the Republic of Korea and China have already become aged societies, and Japan has already become a super-aged society.

In China, the proportion of the population aged 65 and over was 14.2% last year and will reach around 30% by 2050. These countries are facing high degrees of aging and rapid rates of aging.

Another major trend in the current global development is scientific and technological progress, especially with regard to digitalization. Digitization is transforming societies and economies and creating new tools and demands for governance.

Demographic changes can combine with scientific and technological progress to build a future society supported by smart technologies. We can call this new social model an intelligent aging society.

The transition to a smart aging society requires continuous investment in research and development of technologies and in the practical application of these technologies.

A good framework for intelligent elderly care has five elements. First, smart technologies can provide high-quality services to seniors and meet their diverse needs. Second, as technologies serve older people, wearable devices and the Internet of Things can collect data about older people and their interactions with their environment. Third, the collected big data can form a platform on the cloud. Standardizing data and building data storage infrastructures can help promote data sharing between different contexts. Fourth, data mining, machine learning, model simulations and artificial intelligence can use data to improve the development of an intelligent service system. Finally, we can apply intelligent elderly care in different scenarios, increase the supply of intelligent elderly care, and strengthen the application of information technology at all stages of the life cycle.

These smart technologies can be used in preventive care, medical treatment, restorative care, nursing and palliative care. By learning about older people’s lifestyles as well as their specific needs, smart technologies can provide varied, personalized and targeted services. Smart elderly care will be updated through continuous technological innovations and applications.

The transition to an intelligent aging society is not just a matter of various technological innovations. It must also occur in parallel with economic and industrial development, with improvements in the social system and with the institutional growth of managerial capacities. To build an intelligent aging society, we must establish and improve an entire ecosystem with technological, economic, social and institutional dimensions.

According to existing estimates, smart healthcare and elderly care will create an industry of considerable size. This industry involves the production and sale of smart technology products, such as chips, sensors, wearables, and home service robots. In areas such as pharmaceutical production, medical devices, biotechnology, as well as health and medicine, smart elderly care will draw financial resources from a wide and diverse range of funders to support entrepreneurship .

To build a social service system with smart elderly care, smart technologies should be well integrated into different scenarios and social life. Smart technology could be used in home care, community services, telehealth and distance services, and residential care to better meet the specific needs of older people.

A major challenge for the development of smart technologies and the aging society is the digital divide, which can exclude older people, especially the oldest of the elderly, from a digitized society. It is therefore important to achieve digital inclusion to bridge the various digital divides.

Moreover, an intelligent aging society should better manage the relationship between technology and society. A smart older society is one where smart technology serves people by meeting the needs of older people and enhancing the social engagement of older people. People’s lives cannot be controlled by technology and data systems, and technology cannot become a force that controls human society.

As smart aging societies grow, institutions need to update for digital governance. For example, when we apply smart technologies to elderly care, we collect a large volume of big data on demographic and behavioral information. This creates data security and privacy risks for individuals. As governments address aging through intelligent elderly care, they must enact reforms in public management and related institutions.

So, as we move towards an intelligent and inclusive aging society, we need to establish an ecosystem with technological, economic, social and institutional dimensions. Governments, businesses, social organizations, research centers, educational institutions and other entities all have a role to play in this process. Only then can we use smart technologies to improve elderly care services and build a smarter, richer and more vibrant aging society.

Since the 2010s, China began to emphasize Internet integration, Internet of Things, and elderly care. In 2017, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the National Health Commission jointly launched an action plan for smart elderly care. The first phase of the program extended from 2017 to 2020, and the second is ongoing (from 2021 to 2025). Based on the Internet Plus concept and smart technologies, this initiative has set up many and various experimental programs and model programs across China.

Through these exploratory efforts, China is heading towards an intelligent aging society. As people take stock of what happened in these explorations and tackle specific issues that emerge from these trials, new areas of activity are being developed, knowledge about intelligent patient care older people can spread through society. Meanwhile, we can also generate new knowledge through these trials, as they provide us with data, research questions and new demands. Research and application follow one another in a virtuous circle.

In intelligent elderly care, Japan, the Republic of Korea and other countries have accumulated rich experience in technological innovation, service application and institution building. This means that there are many opportunities for broader industrial and social cooperation between countries. By learning from each other, all countries can benefit from the development of smart technologies for their aging populations.

In summary, with the development of new technologies, economy, institutions and society as a whole, we will continue to upgrade the intelligent aged society as the population continues to age. All members of society, including the elderly, will benefit from this development.

The author is a professor at the School of Social Development and Public Policy, Fudan University and a senior researcher at the Population Research Institute. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

Contact the editor at [email protected]

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