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European Commission

Neelie Kroes

Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda

Innovation isn't just for the young

AGE Platform Europe General Assembly /Brussels

17 May 2013

To add your comment to this speech, see the social version of the speech here

Europe today is in a time of change. It's the short-term economic issues that grab the headlines. But there's another bigger change, too. Perhaps more significant in the long term: our continent is getting older

Your organisation, AGE, is for those in Europe over 50. Already today that means you represent 150 million people. By 2060, though, you could represent close to half the EU population! And over that same period, the number of over 65s will almost double. While government spending on related areas could increase by 20%.

There are a number of ways to look at that. You could see it as a triumph: advancing medical science and enlightened public policy have delivered something wonderful for our citizens. Longer, healthier lives.

Or you could see it as a fantastic market opportunity. After all, the potential 'silver market' for older people is already worth around €3 trillion – and growing fast. In today's economy, we should keep a close eye on such growth areas.

Or you could see it purely as a challenge. As a rising cost in the national accounts. As an awkward trend demanding an arduous response. And, personally, I think too many people do just see it that way.

But however you see it, one thing is clear. The change is huge, and we must respond.

Most well-informed people have got this message; even some politicians. But we are not really changing our politics, our policies, our philosophy; we are not thinking beyond the short term. Most decision-makers are focused on the immediate economic crisis; ignoring the fact that Europe in 2060 will look totally different. We're talking about a change that calls for more than a few tweaks to pension rules; we need to re-think our society. Ask what it will look like in a few decades' time. What its needs will be. And what will be the impact on people, on public spending, on planning. Because those impacts will be substantial.

We need innovation. But how do we stimulate and support it? That's a tricky question. But for me, the answer is in digital technology.

When people think of ICT innovation, they too often think of young people. Of teenagers constantly texting, sites targeted at twenty-somethings, start-up millionaires barely out of high school.

But new technology isn't just about the younger generation. And innovation isn't just for the young: it's for everyone. It can serve the most vulnerable in our society. It can help older people lead happier, healthier lives. And it can help in our shift to an age-friendly society. It can, and it should.

Take healthcare. Our health institutions were built in a different age; to deal with acute conditions, short-term problems, hospital stays. An older population faces a different challenge: conditions are often chronic, degenerative, and multiple. That calls for a different kind of treatment. One that does not rob people of dignity and independence, but lets them stay active and healthy as they age. And ICT provides many ideas for how to do that; from simple mobile apps that empower people to take control, to entire environments for assisted living.

At EU level we are investing in those ideas. Our FP7 and Horizon 2020 programmes will continue to look at fundamental research: into the effect of ageing on body, mind and community. Into the technologies, services and applications that can tackle these challenges. And at how we can help older people live actively and independently for longer.

From chips in your shoes that help people keep their balance to robot companions that assist people at home - we are researching the innovations that could help older people. And I know we're not the only ones.

But smart gadgets aren't enough: we need to use them. We need to roll those ideas out into the real world. Seize new opportunities. Innovate in services. And start making a difference to people's lives.

When people do roll-out those ideas, they see the benefits. Trials in regions across Europe have shown that innovations like telehealth can improve survival and recovery: and cut inconvenient, costly hospital visits.

In fact, the ideas and experiences are already out there: it's time to start swapping them; and using them.

That is the philosophy of our Innovation Partnership on Active and Health Ageing. A platform and a forum for many actors to come together. All together, we have more than 3,000 parties contributing to 261 initiatives, focussed on 6 concrete actions, from independent living to integrated care.

These people aren't in it for the money: this is a partnership, not an EU funding programme. They're there to gather evidence, share and learn from each other. It's a great platform to build the evidence base, energise those who already get the message and educate those who don't. And those hundreds of initiatives are already helping improve the lives of millions of Europeans.

I'm delighted that AGE Platform is a very active participant in that scheme: with 45 partners reaching over 360 administrations. I know you really understand, share and promote our vision. And I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for that work.

But healthcare is just one part of an age-friendly EU. It's also about having homes more suited to older people. Or building smarter cities, where it's easier to get around, and which are more responsive to people's needs. In fact Smart Cities is the subject of our "other" European Innovation Partnership.

And, of course, we need the fast broadband networks that make all those things possible.

So in fact healthcare is just one part of the puzzle. We need treatment, but also prevention, social care, and better living. And those ingredients must be integrated, if we are to help older people live independent and fulfilling lives for longer.

These changes to our society are in the distant future. Too far in the future for most politicians to focus on, or care about. But sooner or later we are going to feel the effects of that change. And the sooner we start planning for that future, the better the world we will provide for our citizens.

And that calls for a change in attitude. Ageing isn't a problem, but a source of innovation and growth. It's not just an expanding cost to be cut, but a growing market opportunity to be served. We shouldn't protect powers and practices, but must come together to share, and see how we can do things differently.

We can't adapt our people to suit a legacy system – we must transform our practice to fit changing needs.

With the right will and the right vision, I know we can get there. I thank you for your support.

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