Applying empathy as a tool for innovative thinking


Thanks to modern medicine and improvements in lifestyle people are living longer. Figures suggest that by 2060 there will be more than double the number of older adults over the age of 70, triple the number over 80 and there is a good chance that almost 1 out of 5 will celebrate their 100th birthday.

But fewer still will “age in place”; that is, in their own homes. Most of us hope to age in place. But the reality is that only 13% of Norwegians die in their own homes.

Understanding “Age in Place”

In order to be able to understand how older adults can “age in place” we need to understand the everyday challenges they face.

An empathetic understanding of daily life can give researchers and practitioners the insight to re-frame potential problems and current limitations.

At Kristiania University College, students are encouraged to try our “GERT” – an ageing suit to gain insight into an older adult’s world through the completion of simple tasks most adults consider normal, almost automatic activities of daily life.

When activities of daily life become a struggle

The activities of daily life that most of us consider to be routine and easily completed can become a struggle in our older adult lives. This often leads to changes in behaviour, increased pressure from our environments, and the need for help which affects our personal independence and further, our dignity.

Walking, getting up from a seated position, ascending and descending stairs, opening doors, and all the tasks we need to complete in a day to remain independent are attempted in an effort for designers to gain insight into a world they will inhabit in their future. Not to mention navigating retail and public spaces, reading product packaging labels and wayfinding information, paying for their purchases, and getting everything back home.

Feeling the restrictions of aging

With the GERT suit we can, in effect, enter a world of sensory impairment (and to some degree deprivation) and literally feel the weight and kinaesthetic restrictions of ageing as well as haptic, audio and visual degradations.

The activities of daily life become more challenging and what was once a semi-automatic easy task becomes something new as we struggle to cope with our body’s limitations and with new challenges within our familiar surroundings.

According to the Lawton and Nahemow’s ecological theory of aging the performance of and comfort with daily activities is possible when an appropriate match between a person and his/her environment is achieved.

This match is known as person-environment fit (P-E fit).

The P-E fit is important in understanding the dynamic relationship between people and their environments in all fasits of life but especially as we age.

Empathy-driven design

To gain better personal insights into the subject matter students in interior architecture use this GERT suit as a pedagogical tool to sense the challenges via empathy-driven design.

It allows them to feel, on their person, the challenges encountered by growing numbers in society.

In order to make independent living and ageing in place possible for as many as possible, with as much dignity as possible, we require more research into the challenges being faced and the “jobs to be done” and to educate future generations to think differently about environments, products and services.

Sensing solutions

My own research involves how our haptic senses “read” spaces and how we move around using kinesthetic and tactile modalities (senses) as our bodies slow down and our visual and auditory modalities decay.

Within the domains of architecture and design, vision is the predominant sense. The dominance of the eye (ocularcentrism) and the suppression of the other senses tends to push us into detachment, isolation and exteriority.

It is hoped that this research will help to aid architects, product and service designers by giving them more insight into the possibilities, beyond aesthetics, to engage haptics in design solutions to better meet the housing and service needs of a growing, and often misunderstood, user group.

Finding innovative ways of reframing problems

Empathy, by definition, is an action. It needs to be experienced, as the GERT suit enables, to be understood. Empathy is the first phase of design thinking and plays a critical role in finding innovative ways of redefining and reframing problems.

As we age, our bodies go through gradual and progressive changes that can only be truly understood as we grow old. But if we can project this decline forward to the present, we can expose young (and not so young) designers, innovators and researchers to the problems the current and coming generations are facing.


  • This article is based on lectures in the Interior Architecture bachelor’s «Ageing in Place» course at School of Arts, Design, and Media, Kristiania University College.
  • The article also presents insights from an ongoing PhD research project on the use of haptics in interior architecture as a tool to extend the independence and dignity of the older adults in society.

Text: Lecturer David Coates, Department of Economics and Innovation, Kristiania University College.