More dignity, more freedom

The Design Age Institute was set up this year to help British industry service the needs of an ageing world population. Its director Colum Lowe says Centaur Robotics has risen to the design challenge.

the centaur

The UK is a world centre for design excellence, yet products for the ageing population often fail because they overlook the emotional needs of the user.

Colum Lowe believes that great design can meet this challenge, particularly in the area of mobility. Clunky, cumbersome wheelchairs and mobility scooters dominate the current market, but are overly functional and carry too much social stigma.

“Very few people want to be in an agriculturally-designed piece of medical equipment,” he said. “These are entirely functional, with little consideration given to aesthetic style and any human interaction with the chair at an emotional level.”

“Beautiful design”

Lowe and the newly created Design Age Institute are collaborating with startup Centaur Robotics to help bring to market the revolutionary Centaur, a self-balancing, two-wheeled personal electric vehicle giving users freedom, dignity and pride.

The Centaur combines problem-solving functionality with beautiful design. Lowe believes this allows it to engage users at a psychological and emotional level. The Centaur, Lowe says, “is designed to be aesthetically pleasing”.

The Design Age Institute was set up in 2020 to stimulate the longevity economy and position the UK as a major creator and exporter of new products and services for a rapidly expanding ageing population.

“More freedom, more joy”

At one end of the scale, Lowe said that high street fashion retailers are hugely focused on the emotional demands of specific markets like teenagers. Their products fly off the shelves. But very little consideration is given to the ageing population’s wants and desires. Instead, the focus seems to be based solely on need.

“One of the roles of the Design Age Institute, at the heart of why we were set up, is to look at market failure. Why are products and services not being consumed by this group? Is it because they are not being produced or is it because they are not being produced in a way that older people desire them?”

An inevitable consequence of ageing is a shrinking personal world, with fewer social opportunities, leading eventually to isolation, loneliness and depression.

“What interests us about the Centaur personal electric vehicle is that it will provide users with more dignity, more freedom, more life and more joy.”

Reduce transmission of viruses

Colum Lowe, Design Age Institute
Colum Lowe

Lowe is only a few weeks into his role spearheading the institute, but is relishing the new challenge.

Before joining the government-funded body, Lowe designed living accommodation for the elderly, worked with an autism charity and was head of design at the NHS National Patient Safety Agency. He was also an associate to the Design Council, Innovate UK and Nesta. Design for social good has always been top of his priorities.

The institute is helping adapt the Centaur to life inside care homes, where it is expected to play a crucial role freeing up carers and porters and reducing the transmission of viruses.

Dignity and inclusion

Care home residents are vulnerable to diseases like Covid-19 and, among other things, the Design Age Institute will help the Centaur improve social distancing through the use of sensors and interfaces.

The Centaur also has a seat that raises the user to eye-level, overcoming one of the main drawbacks of other personal electric vehicles.

“This looking and talking down encourages infantilization of people in wheelchairs because they are at the height of children. Having people at eye-level, or as close to eye-level as possible, promotes more equal interaction, which is a link to dignity and inclusion. It’s a more dignified way to communicate.”

“The Centaur is also designed to be a thing of beauty, something that people would want to have in their home, something that they might aspire to owning. You don’t feel like you are using a disability aid. And that’s the change.

 “The emotional and psychological difference between being pushed in a chair or riding a Centaur are like chalk and cheese. It’s the difference between users advertising their disability and owning a desirable, life-enhancing object.”

The Centaur will also be made in the UK. “The ambition to manufacture the Centaur in the UK is a very pleasing prospect. We want to promote the UK’s world-leading design talent as well as our great manufacturing capability.”