Stanford Center on Longevity competition challenges students to design products to help older adults

The design contest solicits entries from student teams worldwide and is aimed at finding solutions that help keep people with cognitive impairments independent as long as possible.

Tyler Olson / Shutterstock Elder and young people

A new design competition is challenging students to use technology to improve the lives of older adults.

Around college campuses, senior problems don't generally refer to issues of the aged.

But the Stanford Center on Longevity is trying to change that with a new competition that asks college seniors – and juniors, sophomores, freshmen and graduate students – to design products and services to help improve the lives of society's senior citizens.

The center's Design Challenge, which formally kicks off with an event Tuesday, is the first of its kind at Stanford and is focused on cognitive impairments – trouble with remembering things, concentration, learning new things or making decisions.

Its aim is to encourage students to work toward solutions that help keep people who are affected by these issues independent as long as possible.

According to most surveys, more than 80 percent of older adults want to "age in place," meaning they want to stay in their homes and communities for as long as possible.

"It's a hard topic to solve for, but we hope to get really unique designs that can eventually be put into the marketplace," said Ken Smith, director of the Mobility Division at the Stanford Center on Longevity.

Smith said challenging twentysomethings to come up with solutions for an older generation puts the students in a different mindset than usual – "one they may not necessarily jump to when they think about designing products" – but one they will definitely need to think of at some point in their lives.

"The aging of our society is going to affect younger people as much as older people, so we think there's an educational value to getting design teams engaged in this issue," Smith said.

The challenge

The competition is currently accepting submissions in what is called Phase I of the challenge. Submitted concepts will be judged in January and finalists will be given financial help to flesh out their design and travel to Stanford to present it.

From January until April, called Phase II, finalists will also have access to mentors in different schools and centers at Stanford

The final presentations, in April, will be before a panel of academics, industry professionals, nonprofit groups and investors.

The top prize is $10,000, while the second place team will take home $5,000 and third place will get $3,000.

The ideas

The Center on Longevity came up with the topic for the design challenge after speaking with industry experts and a collaborator, Aging 2.0, a group of innovators who use technology to improve the lives of older adults.

"We asked, 'Where is the area where you see the most opportunity?'" Smith said. "Almost uniformly, one of the biggest issues is the expected number of people who are going to have cognitive issues and the dilemma of how to care for them."

The World Health Organization estimates that 36 million people suffer from dementia worldwide today, and that is projected to double by 2050.

"The number of caregivers isn't growing as fast as the number of people with cognitive issues," Smith said. "That's a real concern for the industry. In addition, the industry wonders how technology can augment traditional caregiving approaches."

The Center on Longevity expects designs in a number of categories, including reminders (alarms or applications that help remember names and appointments), locator systems (for people who may get lost) and social networks (that help caregivers stay in touch with families who may not live close by).

"Certainly the people who are afflicted by cognitive issues have great needs, but it's also a huge issue for caregivers and families. We hope to see submissions in areas that would help them as well," Smith said.

The center is also inviting community members to provide their input and ideas about needs in the "real world," through posts on the Design Challenge website.

"We need to get more creative minds looking at these problems," Smith said. "Universities can often come up with novel solutions. By inviting people from around the globe to tackle this, we could end up seeing designs with a huge payoff for society and individuals."

The Center on Longevity is kicking off the challenge with an event from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 24, at Stanford. The evening will feature short talks by thought leaders in the area, as well as entrepreneurs launching new ventures addressing the issue. Registration and details can be found online by clicking the "Design Challenge" icon on the Stanford Center on Longevity home page.

Ken Smith, Stanford Center on Longevity:

Brooke Donald, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,