The National Innovation Centre for Ageing is based in The Catalyst, the stunning new building with a glass façade rearing like a horse’s head out of the 24-acre, £350m science park that is the Newcastle Helix. The team within has equally ambitious designs, HELEN COMPSON learns.

It was a simple enough question, asked of a broad range of women in their sixth decade and beyond. What makes you happy?

However, the answers they gave, in the JOY project that ultimately had to host its final exhibition on line last month, are just one small illustration of the complexity of the work of the National Innovation Centre for Ageing.

‘My grandchildren’ was a popular reply, as was ‘playing the piano’, ‘doing arts and crafts’ and ‘singing’.

But for some it was swimming in the North Sea, standing on a remote mountain top, being a Lesbian feminist and, said one blue-haired lady with a big smile, ‘the sexual relationship I have with my new man – we have a lot of fun’.

The National Innovation Centre for Ageing (NICA), tasked with furthering the Government’s objective of endowing the population as a whole with five extra years of healthy ageing by 2030, is on a mission as diverse as the women’s answers.

As the man poached from Boston’s MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab to be its director, Prof. Nic Palmarini, explains, it is working with eight ‘vertical’ industries, namely housing, rural, transport, work, financial services, lifestyle, fashion & beauty, and entertainment.

Its programme matrix is given breadth by four ‘horizontals’, promoting healthy ageing, ethics (from three main perspectuives: diversity, equality, trustable AI), an anti-ageist narrative and a holistic approach to climate change.

Tackling the exigencies of ageing and old age was a huge challenge, but one in which the UK was taking a global lead, he said.

“The UK is one of the few governments in the world that has a pretty straightforward and clear strategy regarding the older adult, having made ageing one of the four key national research pillars.

“Few countries have such a view from their central government.”

Prof. Palmarini is Italian and as such hails from the fastest ageing country after Japan (Germany and Spain aren’t far behind), a conclusion distilled not only from the increasing average life expectancy, but also the higher expectations of the accompanying quality of life.

“For me though, looking at the nation – the UK – that was dedicating so much energy to the vision of ageing well, that convinced me to leave everything and come here to join this centre,” he said.

“It is one of the mega-challenges we have on the planet, along with climate change, but it is also an opportunity to contribute.”

NICA’s pivotal role is to turn the science into hard and fast developments that will support the physical and mental wellbeing of people as they age.

On the one hand, that can mean making the economic case to would-be investors capable of switching on a production line or perhaps facilitating the expansion or importation of a new service or technology.

A good example here is a device being developed by Italian company Piaggio, producer of the iconic Vespa scooter. Christened ‘Gita’, it is a robotic trolley that can be loaded with up to 23kilos of, say, groceries and has an 

artificial intelligence that enables it to follow you round the supermarket and home.

“Think of it like a faithful dog,” he laughed. “It uses very sophisticated AI driven electronics and it’s a beautiful piece of work!

“Then think of how it will help older people, transporting their goods in cities that are starting to become more and more pedestrianised.

“We want to explore if this type of device could help tackle loneliness and isolation.”

The Gita is being developed by Piaggio’s spin-off, PFF, and Prof. Palmarini is now preparing to bring some of the first devices over to Newcastle. “It will be the first city outside of the USA to test this type of technology.”

Another example is enabling the rollout of an ‘on demand’ care system that uses an app to match requests for help with volunteers able to respond. “onHand started up in London in November and it operates like Uber, but for care,” he said.

“If you need a lightbulb changing or somebody to shop for you, it conveys the request. It provides the type of informal care a friend or member of the family would provide.”

Newcastle will be the first city outside of London to get the service.

On the other hand, NICA can also be driving a project as concrete as the whole new neighbourhood that is going to be built but a stone’s throw from The Catalyst.

“With that, we will be providing a new perspective on how homes of the future could be designed,” he said.

“It is about building communities rather than just housing, about creating a kind of new village as well as a home.”

It will be a testbed for all manner of aids, from the social mechanisms needed to counteract isolation and loneliness to the very practical requirements of accessibility and functionality that allow people to remain in their own homes as long as possible.

One example is the 4Gen kitchen, the structure of which will be the very epitome of adaptability. “It grows with you and changes as your needs do over time,” said Prof. Palmarini.

“The kitchen you need in your early twenties is very different to the one you need when you have young children and then, when they grow up and leave home and you are older, maybe you have arthritis or perhaps you are in a wheelchair … the units could be adjusted accordingly.

“We have the draft of a model kitchen, but unfortunately the latest dramatic events due to COVID19 haven’t allowed us to unveil it yet. We can’t wait to invite the city to come and see it.”

The design was informed by the experience and views of the 8000-strong VOICE, the small army of citizens who help shape the centre’s work and resultant solutions, and by NICA’s Ageing IntelligenceTM data, which provides commercial insight into the ageing population and their wider social circle.

NICA’s mission was to work collaboratively to create a world in which we all live longer, healthier and happier lives, he said.

Prof. Palmarini took up his new post in October, but by then, he was already well aware of the ground-breaking science coming out of Newcastle, of the world-leading science park taking shape and, indeed, of the work done by renowned Newcastle University professors Louise Robinson and Tom Kirkwood.

The former trained as a GP in rural Northumberland and today is Regius Professor of Ageing at the university.

The latter meanwhile hails from South Africa, is a biologist by profession and made his name proposing the disposable soma theory of ageing, which posits that an organism only has a limited amount of resources, or soma, for cellular activity and therefore it will age in line with an evolutionary trade-off between growth, reproduction and DNA repair maintenance.

Prof. Palmarini said: “They have dedicated their lives over the past 30 years and more to the subject, from the biological process of ageing to the effects of society on the process.

“So NICA has the advantage of an amazing heritage here in Newcastle.”