Aging in Africa / Hollwich Kushner (HWKN)

Cities of olds or cities for olds

An interview with Matthias Hollwich on the aging of cities by Katy Asinskaya

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An interview with Matthias Hollwich

An interview by Katy Asinskaya

When we talk about cities of the future the conversation immediately starts being either a prediction based on current trends or a dream. We know that technology will bring us to a world from a science fiction book. Even now we have mobile phones, wireless connections, tablets, driver-less cars, smart houses. Very soon we will probably be able to print out houses or even grow them from organic materials. We will be able to be mentally on-line and replace our body parts with robotically assisted devices. Every single one of us can give hundreds examples of what will be available in the relatively near future. We are now living through one of the biggest technological shifts in history and who knows where it will take us.

Nonetheless I can barely give examples of forecasting about the people of the future. It may seem that people are people, with nothing changing with time, but this can hardly be the case. One of the hot trends now is aging, humanity is rapidly getting older, life expectancy is extending. The 21st century will witness even more rapid aging than did the century just past. By the year 2050, for the first time in history, seniors older than 60 will outnumber children younger than 15. And this fact will change life in future cities dramatically, even though we barely think about our later years and the aging topic is in the zone of denial.

Matthias Hollwich has worked for OMA in Rotterdam, and Eisenman Architects and Diller & Scofidio in New York. In 2007 he founded HWKN, an architecture and concept design firm in New York. The range of his projects includes the design of the first retirement community in West Africa, 2 large-scale apartment renovations on New York's Upper East Side, the Favela Formiga Open Air Theatre in Rio de Janeiro, and the reinvention of the city centre of Dessau in Germany. But his real passion is New Aging. Matthias has been working hard on spreading the idea of conscious aging and encourages everyone to think about their later years right now. His speeches at TEDs, PICNIC conference, and the Strelka Institute excited me and brought me to the idea of taking a look at those future cities of olds we will be living in very soon.
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I think the trend of an aging population is one of the most important, but still under appreciated and under researched. So I would like to ask you this; how did you personally come to the idea of exploring and promoting this topic?

It happened actually 4 years ago when I turned 39. And while I was looking at the statistics, I realized that, as an average German, I had passed 50% of my life expectancy. So officially I became old. I started to look into what it meant to come into the second part of my life. We know so much about the first part, right? Because we grow up, we have parents to help us, we get our education, and then we start our career, we do our jobs, at some point we make some money. But we really don’t know much about the second part, everything appears to be in the mysterious space of luck. We hope that when we get into it, we’re all going to be healthy and never die. I realised that there is an absolute lack of planning for people’s later years beyond the financial. People create pension funds, but beyond that we really don’t go much further and let it all just happen.

What I actually believe is that we have to consider our later years and to treat it the same way we treat a trip around the world. We have to look for the best destinations we are interested in, we have to look for the comfort level or the services that will accommodate us. We have to check if we need a visa or a permit to be at the place we want to be. And, of course, we have to curate our experiences to make them stay in tune with ourselves. Something you don’t want to happen when you travel around the world is that when you land in a place and you cannot speak the native language, you don’t have any money, you’re stuck in a hotel you don’t like, you cannot get the food you want. Getting older is exactly the same thing. And usually people plan a trip around the world very well and that is the way we should treat our lives. So for getting older I should look into what will happen when I get older, when I am 60, for example. What will happen when I am 70? What will happen when I am 80? As an example, I figured out that 60% of old people above 74 in Western society lose their ability to drive a car. So in my perspective I already have to assume that I will not have a car, and I have to plan my life without one. All these kind of things really change the consciousness, and I believe we should not treat ourselves as victims; we really have to treat ourselves as active participants in our own future.

I like the metaphor you used about treating our later years the same way we plan a trip. I wonder what your projects for senior people offer as options for this sort of trip?

One of the biggest things I like is the ocean of possibilities for development in terms of services and helping ourselves. Nowadays, we may see a lot of options for older people, but none of them are really adequate to a dignified human environment. So the biggest change, and the core of our idea, is to create a social engine amongst us; so that when we get older, we will have created a network, a community to help each other. And multiple things can help then. First of all, to design the environment to be multi-​generational, we have to design people’s contact, provide them with the time and space to actually meet each other in the most positive and gentle way. Then a social glue or a social bond can emerge. We want to create a community where everyone invests a little bit of time and passion in their neighbours and their friends, with an outlook that, in the longer run when something happens to ourselves, there will also be someone for us. And it’s actually very interesting to compare this community-​oriented approach with what we have now. Today when you hire a nurse the costs are enormous. But nobody really wants to be treated by a nurse. Everyone wants either to be able to help themselves, or to have somebody they feel comfortable with do it for them. And that can become a driver for a mutually helping community. Secondly, take a look at what is happening right now in society about shared property: Airbnb, Buzzcar, you name it. We live now in much more collective surroundings and that is exactly the prototype of new living where the collective is re-​empowered, but not in the old way. In a shared world ownership is still important, but it’s about giving and taking and enriching everyone’s lives with that.

That’s an interesting notion – you talk a lot about sharing, new services, and maybe we have a chance to become this new sort of senior people who will promote this idea. But as far as I can see now, older people rely a lot on government and state support (more in Russia, perhaps less in Europe and the US). But the support is usually limited or there is no support at all. What is interesting about your vision is that you offer the prospect of relying solely on ourselves, to shape our own future lives in a very special way. Do you believe governmental support will be canceled in the future?

Now a lot of people do rely on governments, but they also see that governments are running out of money. So now less and less people really expect government to help them and I can give you some examples. I don’t know the conditions in Russia, but in America we had made some research and we found that 50% of all people are in nursing homes (each person there costs the government $5,000 per month in care) because of social deficits. So it’s not about medical conditions, it’s about social conditions. If they lived in an environment where the social glue is healthier, where people help each other on a very minor level, or at least look out for each other, then you could already reduce the amount of people in nursing homes by 50%. The government would save lots of money, and people who are older, would be happier. I personally have never ever met anyone who really enjoyed being in a nursing home, so if we could avoid that, it would make such a big difference for everyone of us.

BOOM Costa Del Sol / Hollwich Kushner (HWKN)

But do governments help you with your projects or is it always your own initiative?

This initiative came first from me, and now I have a lot of architects involved in thinking through and working out multiple scenarios for this type of projects. One of them is a scenario for a developer; others are more ideas for our own future life. I think that the easiest way to make the biggest difference is to sit together with your three best friends and say: “Look, where are we going to be when we are 70? Let’s join forces, find a location where we will live in close proximity, ideally in the same apartment or the same apartment building.”. As architects, we have to re-​think typology and create a place where everyone can have a studio and one shared living area that you can all occupy. So find an apartment that you can rent and later you will be able to help each other. We did the calculations; for example, if four of us are in a nursing home it will cost $20,000 per month just to live there and to get the basic services. But if we own an apartment all together and we hire a nurse, it is $5,000 per month. Four times cheaper! And we will have personalised care, we will have a home where we want to be.

From what you say I can assume that you recommend that people take responsibility and shape their own future in the way they like. But I can also trace a change in people’s attitudes toward older people. Their life experience, knowledge, and wisdom that were highly appreciated several centuries ago and were useful for communities or societies, are not needed anymore. Now we have all the knowledge in the world in our laptop or on a mobile phone. In your opinion, does the Internet affect our relationship with old people and the fact that they are left somewhere behind?

We really have to put in everyone’s mind that age discrimination is the only one we do against our future selves

Yes, there’s definitely a lot of truth in that. I mean all the knowledge you need to act in our intense world, you can find in the Internet. But there is also such a thing as experience, which is still important, and you hardly can get it through the Internet. There are a lot of things that have to come back in our consciousness. Number one, for example, is the term ‘elderly.’ People use it to describe older people, but this group of people just does not exist. ‘Elderly’ has become a term that puts everyone who is older into one pigeonhole, but there are thousands of different types of older person. One likes car racing, another one likes to play chess, a third likes to do gardening, the next one is active, the next one is passive, one can drive, the other one cannot. So it is actually more healthier to say «older people». We all have to start committing and stop saying “I am not old yet,” but when are we old? Everyone is in denial, and we try to avoid the terminology. By now it is one of the biggest discriminatory terms in our society. When you start to commit, when you are 39 and you can say: “Look, officially I am old and I have to deal with it,” it changes all the terminology. People see me and say “oh, he is an old guy” (and as you can see I don’t look like an old guy) and I accept it. By doing that we will manage to devalue the power of age discrimination and suddenly it will reintegrate many people of an older age back into the conversation. For number 2, I think we really have to put in everyone’s mind the fact that age discrimination is the only kind that we commit against our future selves. Because we’re all, hopefully, going to get old and if we discriminate against older people now, we deserve to be discriminated against in our own future. That’s why I am still surprised that people discriminate, it’s really funny. I’m not going to turn black, I’m not going to turn into anything else to be discriminated against, but everyone will become old, I mean visually old, and will be discriminated against at some point. That is the other thing we, all society, have to fight with.

So we are talking right now about re-​invention of the whole paradigm of being old. One hundred years ago women had no right to vote and look at what we have today. So, maybe 50100 years from now there will be no ageism. But now we treat old people in a very strange way: houses for them are not usually located in the city. It’s like a sort of reservation for older people where you just send them out because they don’t have enough speed to live the big city life. Do you think this part should be reinvented too or is it a logical outcome from a real demand?

The interesting thing for me is when people are 40, 50, 60 and 70, their general interests don’t change. They are still who they are. Looking back at your personal history you may find that what you liked 10 years ago, is what you like now. There are small adjustments of course, but I personally will never start to like gardens and gardening, and I’m totally not going to be a person who loves to cook – it’s just not me. It will not happen in 10, 20 or 30 years. That’s why I don’t believe that we have to find a special place for the aging population. We have to create places for older people anywhere where they want to live – some of them want to live in the city, some of them want to live in suburbia or on the coast. In terms of statistics, older people want to live closer to family, and that’s the only consistent thing we found in all kinds of data. Access to their grandkids and children makes them feel more secure, makes them fell that there will be somebody to help if they need it. That is the only thing I believe we have to be aware of when we are working on projects for older people. Beyond that I don’t believe that there could be one perfect location that is good for everyone.

But in this case there is obviously a need to re-​shape cities and to make them more comfortable for older people. Do you have any ideas what it could be like? What are the problems now?

We are moving towards future where technology re-​empowers the individual and provide them with a richer service environment and a richer access wherever they

I think we know all of them, basically this is the question of accessibility. Older people face a lot of physical challenges. When you are in a wheelchair or it’s hard for you to walk, how can we create an urban landscape that makes it possible for you to get wherever you want? Another one is service – you will need to get food, medicines, all of these kinds of services and ideally you should have them in walking distance, because it might happen that at some point you will not have a car anymore. One more is a new mode of transportation, which is fantastic, but it would have to be accessible. And maybe those wheelchair transporters that you can see everywhere in New York are not a good example. We need something much more typical, because we don’t want to make special things for older people. To avoid segregation, we have to adapt what we have. The real beauty is that through technologies we can bring new efficiency that hadn’t been there before. Why did Walmart had to move outside the city? Because that was the only way for them to reach the efficiency in distribution they needed. But now their biggest competitor is Amazon who has individualised distribution. Not that I think it’s perfect that all the goods you need can be delivered to your home, to the place where you consume them. In the end it’s good when you leave the house, when you meet new people and have social contact. But at least we are moving towards a future where technology re-​empowers the individual and provides them with a richer service environment and richer access wherever they are.

It’s good that you mentioned technologies, because this is a point of a small concern for me. Quite often you see older people who can barely use mobile phones and cannot use the Internet at all. And we usually consider older people to be conservative in their lifestyles and habits, which prevent them from using new technologies. On the other hand, we see this fast technological evolution, driver-​less cars and smart houses; will we be able to use them when we are really old?

There is something interesting in Germany called Sinus-​Milieus. It’s an analysis of lifestyles based on age and income. There you can see that not all people are traditionalists, you will see that there are many different types of people. So when we get older, traditionalists will have a hard time adapting to technology, but there are early adapters even in old age that do start using iPhones and all these kind of things. So again, it’s about lifestyle and personality. We have to acknowledge that right now we are in one of the biggest shifts in the use of technology in our society, so, unfortunately, people without easy access to it will have a hard time to adapt. We have to be very helpful at this transitional moment. It might even be cheaper if you sent people to the apartments of seniors to set up computers and order a couple of things, to organise their lives, than to move them into a nursery home. So we have to figure out what people need in these kind of transition areas and find a way to support them. Also technology, for sure, is not at the end of evolution, I do hope that Siri on iPhone is one day going to be so good, that we will never ever use iPhone anymore. That it will be the same as talking to a person. So it’s nice when it can say to you: “Oh, I think we are out of milk, let’s order some. And actually we need a couple more things ordering,” so that it becomes a conversation with a technology that translates it to the provision of services around us.

So is it more about interface?

That’s about interface. I mean, several years ago we had dial-​in Internet and a PC, then it became Wi-​Fi and laptops, then 3G and mobile phones, now it’s about tablets. In 10 years who knows how we will be communicating with these kind of things? Let’s hope that most of these innovations will move on from being useful only for a person who can see and hear well. Interface is the limit now, something between technology and us. The other limit, of course, is the price. And I think there are a lot of things that governments have to rethink over time. Right now, the government is paying $200 per night for you just to sleep there and have some services in the most horrific environments possible. If they support a person with $200 per month with some technologies, or some services that can be provided through technologies, that could make a big difference. I mean, it requires a rethink of the whole administrational system to stay in touch with all the innovations that are coming out in our world today.

But now the problem of aging population is more or less the problem of First World Countries, isn’t it? India and China seem very different in that perspective. In your opinion, can these countries benefit economically from that?

Well, China is soon going to run against the Big Wall. They know it, they’re trying to do everything they can to change it. It’s still a very young country in terms of population, but they have had the ‘one child’ policy for years. As a result they don’t have enough people being born and a rapidly aging society. Another example is actually the scariest to read about; South Korea, which right now has 8% of the population above 65 with 30% of these people living below the poverty line. In 2050 they will have 30% of the population above 65 and they expect that 60% of these people will live in poverty. It’s one of the results of the research we made two years ago. So some of the aging countries will be hit very hard, and China is one of those. They have to work very hard to get as rich as possible to be able to support their older population in the future. It’s different in India; they still have a very healthy growth. Germany and France and all of these countries are in the middle of the challenge, because right now they have a bulk of older people. But in 20 years all these countries will do very well, because by that time all the old people will have passed away. There will be a lack of people that can work, but they will balance themselves. Still they have to go through 30 years of hard times. And America, surprisingly, is doing the best, because this is the one country from the whole globe that has very healthy migration and population growth, but not overgrowth. It’s very balanced. This country economically will do the best.

I would like to switch then to Miami, which has become a destination for older people because of their retirement programme. Do you think this model can become a solution for the aging population?

These things are happening in America, most of all because of financial opportunities. If we take Miami or Florida with its good climate and beautiful weather, where real estate is reasonably priced, a lot of people have already been moving there for years to retire. But there is something nobody thinks about. There’s a period of time in retirement when it’s all about fun and leisure, but then the years come which are harder. That’s when most people move away again from Florida, back to the places where they were born or places where their children live. It’s almost kind of an age vacation, holidays when people go and do something they have always dreamt about, but it’s not the right solution for healthy aging. Ideologically, I do not endorse it, I think it’s a wrong trend and it doesn’t go along with longevity thinking of how to live your life. It’s just a fun option to spend a period of your life.

But do you consider this retirement programme as one of the first calls to think about older people as a target audience in terms of marketing?

–Well, if you want to have a very controversial issue: older people moving into nursing homes in other countries. I am trying to figure out if it’s really already a trend (and I believe it is). I have noticed it in Germany; people go to Poland because it’s much cheaper and the services are better than in Germany. So it’s almost going to be like old people exporting, like sending them away to places where medical services are cheaper than in the place we live. I haven’t made my opinion about it yet, but it may become a very interesting trend in future.

Geropolis : Matthias Hollwich with the Bauhaus Foundation Dessau

That’s very interesting! So now we are talking not only about cities of olds, but countries of olds.

Yes! And when we think about it, it could also be an opportunity. Tourism is one of the biggest equalisers. Some countries started to offer tourism and had a very positive income in conditions where they were lacking in natural resources. So if now poorer countries might have a really educated medical staff and create high quality age services, that could become their new economical basis.

One question comes suddenly to mind: Do you think with this extension of life expectancy and the trend of getting married and having children in later age – not in the 20s, but the 30s or even 40s – we can expect people to work actively into their 70s or even 80s?

In the end we added more that 20 years to people lives and we shortened the time when they really have challenges

Yeah, when you look at the statistics, for people in Europe and Western society the average life expectancy was once 60 or 65. Now, for example in Germany it’s 78 for men and 82 for women, so people live much longer. But the time when people really need medical attention has actually got shorter. It used to be on average three years, now it’s two. In the end we’ve added more than 20 years to people’s lives and shortened the time when they really have challenges. That is a beautiful kind of development! In the end, I think, if society becomes older, but lives healthily and manages economically, then it’s a good development. But society still has to rethink a lot of things. One of them is retirement. Retirement was introduced because people had hard labour jobs and they were burnt out and worn out when they were 60. At 65 they were able to retire and at 68 they normally passed away. So there was a great period of three years when the burden of labour was taken away from them. Now people still retire at 65, but they live until 85 without working. For some people it’s fun and they do something good with that time, but there are also lots of people who don’t know what to do. So it might become an leisure period for the next 20 years without a reason and, what is more important, without validation from society. In my opinion it would be good to eliminate the idea of retirement and to find a way to do things you like when you get older. When you look into longevity principles, people who become the oldest actually never stop working, they manage to adjust their way of working to their age.

So everybody needs a purpose and we have come back again to the idea of rethinking the whole concept of aging.

Exactly! And that purpose can be volunteering or taking care of your grandchildren, the purpose can be anything. A job? What is a job? It’s a purpose and in some cases it’s money, in others it’s not. I think that’s an open conversation but we definitely need some kind of idea of purpose.

But can you give examples of some movements? I mean at the country level, is there any comprehension of the situation and attempts to change it somehow?

Retirement might become an entertainment period for next 20 years without a reason and, what is more important, without validation from society

Yes, the biggest movements are really happening through the awareness that, financially, it’s really hard to serve an aging population. We have to make some adjustments, which are the retirement age, services and so on. I live now in the US, so I see heightened awareness of things that need to be changed, but people also know that those changes are massive and it’s really hard to get them started. In other countries, in Germany I know that awareness is already much older. In Japan, which is on the leading front for longevity and aging research, they have already had it in their consciousness for many decades and are trying to find solutions. I definitely see movement, but everywhere it’s different. Even in America, every state is doing something different.

Changing everyone’s mind about age and aging will probably take a lot of time. Do you think our generation will be the first generation living in a new world of older but not elderly people? Or will it take longer?

I think, at least in America, the baby-​boomers, who will start to retire very soon, will completely change the way of how we look at aging. I mean, they made a lot of changes in terms of society and they will continue to do so. I think there is a paradigm change, but it definitely needs to go much deeper and more intensely into our consciousness. The only thing I can say is, if you want to be successful in changing anything about the aging population, you have to start to do it in your active professional life. That’s where you have the most power and opportunities to make a difference. And if you fail, you will suffer from that when you’re older, and you don’t want to live with that regret. We have to do it for ourselves.