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Mr Erkki Liikanen

Member of the European Commission, responsible for Enterprise and the Information Society

"Smart houses - The European Challenge to ageing"

Conference Vitality in Age in the Information Society

Tilburg, 26 October 2001

Ladies and Gentlemen

1. The context of eEurope

The Information Society is a key subject of the EU agenda in terms of setting policies, launching practical initiatives and running research activities. The Commission has launched an initiative known as eEurope. This has the broad aim of enabling all citizens to have access to the Internet, and for society to benefit concretely from that access.

The priorities are:

  • to make Internet access cheaper and faster, through competition in telecoms;

  • to make sure everyone young people as well as senior citizens - has the skills to use the Internet;

  • and to stimulate Internet use in business and government, and in areas such as health and transport.

Smart housing is an area where these various aspects of the Information Society meet.

But it is the second heading on this slide including participation for all - which is particularly important for our subject today.

We are striving to make sure the Information Society is an inclusive concept, where all parts of society have a stake. We are also keen to see that new technologies are used to actually promote social inclusion for example:

  • through promoting the emergence of products and services which improve the quality of life of the elderly and disabled;

  • through the use of technology to allow people to live independently;

  • through making sure that public sector web sites are designed to be accessible so that people with disabilities, poor eyesight, and so on, can take full advantage of information available on-line.

2. The challenge of Europe's ageing population

A better standard of living and greater access to more advanced medical care has increased life expectancy dramatically this century, while birth rates have fallen.

Demographic trends in Europe will be a crucial issue in the coming years, with increasing life expectancy, and likely longer periods of disability and dependency.

In this situation we can foresee major challenges that will need tackling :

  • to improve the quality of life of older people, through prolonging good health and increasing independence

  • to contain costs of health and social care, while meeting increased expectations

  • to enhance social welfare systems, while ensuring long-term economic sustainability.

3. What is the EU doing?

Let me next describe a number of EU actions in this field which come under the umbrella of the Community's Fifth Framework Programme of research. This programme is not only aimed at industry, but also includes a focus on the well-being of the European population, and finances research and development to provide the knowledge and technologies that society needs. It helps generate that knowledge and technology by focusing Europe's considerable research resources on problems suitable for tackling at a European level.

A good example is the Quality of Life Programme, which includes a part which is aimed at the ageing population and at disabilities.

Another good example is the IST programme (Information Society Technologies programme), part of which looks specifically at technological solutions, and at developing applications for people with special needs.

I will look at these now in a bit more detail.

    3.1 Quality of life programme

    Ageing and disability are trends which are creating a 'top-heavy' population, with an expanding proportion of older people. This is not a problem, of course, if senior citizens can look forward to years of good quality life after retiring. But when the ageing process starts to cause health problems, this can make life difficult to bear, and can place a great burden on health services, families and carers.

    The part of this programme dealing with ageing and disability aims to promote quality of life for the elderly. Through researching more effective prevention and treatment for age-related disease and disability, as well as their societal consequences, it will allow more people to enjoy good health and independence in their old age, as well as reducing the strain on public health services.

    The programme an area of interest in relation to the smart home concept, focusing on coping with functional limitations in old age, as referred to in the slide:

    • technological products and systems contributing to greater mobility and less dependency, both inside and outside the home

    • caring and nursing products designed to support older people in their own homes

    • stimulating the capacity for self-care by older people.

    3.2 IST Programme

    The IST (Information Society Technologies) Programme promotes the aim of a User Friendly Information Society.

    Among a wide range of issues it addresses systems and services for the citizen, including applications for people with special needs, including the disabled and the elderly.

    In this area the Commission coordinates projects to facilitate research and development that allows people with special needs to live independently, move freely, and to have access to a wider range of services and facilities.

    More specifically in this area of applications for people with special needs, the Commission supports two main groups of projects:

    Firstly, intelligent systems to provide assistance with the aim to support, enhance or replace functional capabilities.

    The overriding socio-economic challenges here are to:

    • improve the quality of life of the individual

    • and, simultaneously, to stimulate and expand the so-called 'assistive' technologies market with new products and services based on increased industrial participation.

    The long-term vision of what we might call 'ambient intelligence' focuses on the particular needs of individuals by providing an easy and natural way of interacting with a myriad of systems and applications in the surrounding environment. This group of projects helps by building a platform for wide-scale information exchange, co-operation and standardisation efforts, which should overcome the prevailing problem of fragmentation in the market.

    These projects cover a wide range of assistive technologies, systems, devices and services aimed at problems with vision & hearing, physical problems, language & speech problems, and cognitive & mental problems - with special attention paid to age-related difficulties.

    Technologies covered in this area include the use of wireless mobile communication, such as BLUETOOTH, predictive typing (as in SMS messages), advanced sensors and multi-sensorial interfaces, as well as multi-dimensional barcodes to store and retrieve information.

    Secondly, intelligent systems for independent living

    This second group of projects includes those that develop and demonstrate intelligent systems that enable people with special requirements to live independently. They address personal care, mobility and communication, improved access to a wider range of services and facilitates, and greater participation in social and community activities - including extended employment and learning opportunities.

    The specific aims of the projects are: to maximise information exchange, to respect user requirements; to ensure interoperability of the systems under development; and to contribute to relevant standards.

    Concretely, the projects support independent living by developing such tools as personal devices (i.e. for tele-support), by designing systems for the home environment and by elaborating advanced solutions for professional and informal carers.

    Finally, while I am on this slide, perhaps I should flag future developments here, and point out that the new, Sixth, Framework Programme, which is presently under preparation, will include themes like social inclusion and enabling access to networks and network based services. We intend that information and communication technologies will be used as fully as possible to meet social challenges.

4. Smart houses

Let me make a few remarks about the smart house concept based on the experience we have gained so far in the projects we support:

  • smart houses exploit developments in microelectronics and telecommunications to support daily living

  • innovations cover a broad spectrum : the "smartness" may vary a lot, ranging from:

    • fairly simple applications of sensors and control systems

    • to the most futuristic automated homes.

  • Many existing houses may be converted to be "smart" with structural alterations if the changing needs of residents over their lifecycle have been taken into account in planning.

  • Designers and engineers have to identify future applications and services when specifying cabling and telecommunications connections.

  • Smart houses may have particular value for disabled and elderly people by providing support for daily living.

Examples of smart house functionalities for use depending on individual needs - are the following :

  • in case of smoke detector alarm, lights are automatically put on, doors unlocked and signal sent not only to the fire station but to a possible care service centre close to the smart house

  • fall detectors can be important, as many elderly people, especially those suffering from dementia, have poor balance

  • exit door sensors to inform care service of door openings and departure from the house or apartment

  • sensors of different kinds and in different positions to check that the normal living patterns are followed

  • easy-to-use two-direction communication facilities to keep contact with the external environment.

Obviously, technology alone does not provide a complete solution. For example, houses and apartments for the elderly have to be planned in such a way as to function smoothly, and issues such as furniture, kitchen equipment, doorways, thresholds, bathroom facilities etc. are important.

It is also to be expected that social and ethical issues will emerge. Attention needs to be paid:

  • to the respect for autonomy and privacy

  • to the issue of acceptance - the real priorities and expectations of the elderly need to be respected in the planning of smart homes

  • and to the fact that functionalities have to be correctly chosen based on needs - and they have to be implemented in user friendly fashion to make sure users have confidence in them.

The Province of North Brabant has been very active in seeking ways in which the new information and communication technologies can be beneficial for specific groups of citizens, as elderly people.

I have been informed that between 1999 and 2001 more than 150 houses have been produced in which elderly people may make use of various kinds of home networking facilities.

I am confident that the Smartest House of the Netherlands initiative of the Smart Homes Foundation in the Netherlands will continue these efforts.

The ALIVE Consortium members are showing true willingness to demonstrate the smart house concept and solutions to improve the quality of life.

The House itself will demonstrate in practice how people with high age or disability may enjoy barrier-free life according to high standards I am looking forward to seeing it.

It is my pleasure to wish all success for the initiative and to be present here today to open the Smart House.

Thank you for your attention.

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