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In conversation: Dr Stephan Sigrist on our ageing society

In conversation: Dr Stephan Sigrist on our ageing society
Dr. Stephan Sigrist - Founder Think Tank W.I.R.E.

Dr. Stephan Sigrist

Founder Think Tank W.I.R.E.

Dr Stephan Sigrist is the founder and head of W.I.R.E., a leading interdisciplinary think tank. He recently delivered the keynote speech - “The world is ageing - Opportunities and scenarios of an ageing society” - at a Lombard Odier IM event in Zurich on September 25. The following Q&A was conducted after the event.


What do you mean by an ‘ageing society?’

Population ageing refers to an increase in the average lifespan of a person. An ageing society is a megatrend which is forcing us to rethink any number of aspects of our day-to-day life.

Notably, the number of over 65s is growing at three times the rate of younger people in developed markets. This is especially evident in places like Japan where it is estimated that people aged 65 or more will account for 40% of the population by 2060. Such is the speed and scale of this demographic shift that the share of people aged 50 or over is expected to double over the next 30 years.

We can see evidence of this trend in play as the ‘baby boomer’ generation is starting to enter retirement. There are estimated to be around 10,000 baby boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 - in the US reaching retirement every day, by some estimates.

We cannot expect the structures and processes currently in place to effectively cater to the demands which will arise as a result of this “demographic time bomb”.


How do you form your predictions?

W.I.R.E is a one of the world’s leading interdisciplinary think tanks and we are focused on identifying new trends early on. We have been working on this idea of an ageing society since we were established and it is important to remember that this will take the form of an evolution rather than a radical disruption. Consequently, we consider a number of potential outcomes rather than assume a single, definitive inevitability.

In order to understand the world, we need a broader approach to analysis. We are looking not just looking into technical developments, we are trying to understand the relevant social developments, as well as the accompanying regulatory space. For example, if you asked people whether we would have self-driving cars in the near future, they might believe so given that the technology already exists, to a degree. This does not account for the fact the car insurance industry will find it exceptionally complicated to enter this space, nor does it account for the regulatory burdens which are inevitable.

However promising technological advancements may appear, they are only as good as their ability to fulfil a true need of customers. A lot of what we do requires us to work backwards from future consumer requirements we have identified to see where and how these needs could be met.

While we don’t believe we can predict the future, we do believe that by adopting this broad view of the world, we are getting a clearer idea of where things are heading.


How will an ageing society affect our working lives?

A longer life means there will be a greater need for personalised and continuous education. Someone with an enhanced lifespan will be more inclined to consider several different career options, for example, since they will spend a greater proportion of their life in work.

When we look into the future, we believe people will have to be re-educated simply in order to bring their knowledge base up in line with technological developments, such as an insurance broker who one day needs to understand how the industry approaches self-driving vehicles.

Universities have been fairly slow to adapt to the idea of continuous education. What this means is that we are seeing a lot of innovation elsewhere and a number of digital tools are now being used to educate people.

Augmented reality could play a role here and the potential is very promising. We have already seen how projecting instructional mechanics on a wearable screen can be effective across a range of educational opportunities. An augmented reality programme could scan the content of your fridge and come up with a recipe for you. It could then show you how to actually prepare the meal by means of visible instruction. Elsewhere, similar tools are being developed to help surgeons with medical procedures.  


Which sectors are the most exposed to the effects of an ageing population?

A consequence of an ageing society will be a greater strain placed on our healthcare systems. This is going to be a key area of focus as we become more acclimatised to ever-longer lifespans. We are already seeing signs of exciting disruptive technologies emerge in this space.

The key development in the medical environment is not in drug development, it is in diagnostics. This is the biggest change we have observed. We are moving towards a world where we diagnose ourselves with the help of tools that are available in everyday life, without medical professionals. Diagnostic rely on data and we are getting significantly better at collecting data. Over the next 10 years or so, we will have even more data related to our physical and mental health which will support further innovations in diagnostics.

Scientists are making real strides in this area. For example, engineers at Caltech University have developed an app which allows the camera on your smartphone to provide detailed information about your heart's health. This process would have previously required a 45-minute scan from an ultrasound machine. The app can replicate this process by having a patient hold their phone up to their neck for few minutes.

There is also a growing need for medical support and this looks likely to continue. There are many different solutions on this front, ranging from genetic engineering to precise personalised treatments. Machines should be expected to play a more important role in physical therapy, for example, as expensive human labour is increasingly replaced by cheaper technological solutions.

Medical developments have been key to our longer lifespans and they will remain critical to our maintaining them.

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