Having Trouble Understanding Intergenerational Design? – Start Here

By Ken Smith, Senior Research Scholar and Director, Mobility Division

In selecting “Contributing at Every Age: Designing for Generational Impact” as the topic for the 2018-2019 Stanford Longevity Design Challenge, we know we are asking many students to think differently about design. Past topics such as “Innovating Aging in Place” and “Promoting Lifelong Healthy Habits through Design” are probably a little more tangible to many designers, especially those working in the physical space. We will try to demystify things a little here and in future writings as we move forward with the challenge.

There are a lot of good things that come from bringing generations together for things like work, play, socialization, and education. Many of these benefits are highlighted in our social media feeds and we intend on giving you more information about this in the future, but for now I’d like to skip over that part and get right to the likely first questions for many designers – “What does an intergenerational design look like?” and “Can you give me some examples?”

At the core, we are looking for products, programs, and other approaches that by their nature include more than one generation, and that are not simply young people designing something for older people. Here are a few potential categories of these types of designs, along with examples:

Physical Products

Physical products have made up the bulk of our submissions in previous challenges. While this year’s topic might lend itself to more program-based solution, there is definitely design space for physical submissions.

One example of this approach comes from one of our past challenges “Designing for Happiness”. The design, dubbed “Together Green” and submitted from UC-Berkeley, was based around a houseplant, whose health was monitored through an internet connected camera, and soil moisture sensor. Both the owner of the plant and an on-line partner worked together to determine the type of plant they were working with (it was not specified when delivered) and how to best care for it. The connection occurred through a smartphone app. The suggested use case was that a grandparent purchase the plant for a college student as a way of keeping in touch across distance in an engaged way.

Another example of a physical design promoting intergenerational interaction can be found in a number of new playgrounds created to be fun for both kids and adults. A great example is the new Momentum playground in Washington State that was created as a place that kids can play while their Moms (or Dads) can get in a workout.


Although I am constantly surprised by the creativity of our submissions, it would not be unexpected to see an increase in “program” submissions this year, as activities often bring people together.

One of my favorite programs is the Speaking Exchange at the CNA language school in Sao Paolo. It connects Brazilian students to nursing home based seniors in the U.S., with whom they can practice conversational English. If you have not seen the viral video of this program, it is worth watching and explains the program much better than I can here.

Intergenerational housing solutions often include attributes of both program and physical design. In Deventer, the Netherlands, a successful program pairs college students and seniors, to the benefit of both. Two MIT grads attempting to turn this idea into a business called “Nesterly” were recently featured in Forbes Magazine.

A program a little closer to Stanford is the Generation to Generation program organized by Encore.org to “inspire people over 50 to make a positive difference in the lives of children and youth.”

If you are considering submitting a program to the Challenge, it will be good to think about how you can include materials that validate your idea. In the same way that judges look for user feedback or engineering analysis of a physical design, they will want to know that you have worked with your potential user community to get feedback on your idea, or that the approach has been piloted with at least a small group.

Phone/Computer Apps

The Challenge has received some of its most creative entries from computer application designers. I would expect this trend to continue, as developers find clever ways to draw people of different ages together. This has become an area of study for some university researchers, as evidenced by the paper My Grandpa and I Gotta Catch ‘Em All, which reviews the history of intergenerational gaming and proposes a study based on the popular game Pokemon Go.

In the educational space, apps can augment the work teachers are doing in the classroom. This  article from the teacher resource site “TeacherswithApps” highlights some of the benefits of intergenerational applications along with examples.

Even video games at home are a potential link between generations. This piece describes how researchers at Arizona State University are thinking about the benefits of parents playing games with their children.


I look forward to this year’s challenge generating a host of creative ways to bring generations together and that recognize the contributions of people of all ages. We hope that the requirement for each team to be intergenerational will help teams understand the value of these relationships first hand. I would expect that most teams would have generated these relationships without the rule, as good design rarely occurs without user feedback and collaboration.

We are here at [email protected] for your thoughts and questions.

Additional Resources

For additional background and ideas, check out these sources of information:

  • The Eisner Foundation, which is completely focused on promoting intergenerational programs.
  • This list of intergenerational programs from “Brighter Futures Together” in the United Kingdom
  • Encore.org
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Ken Smith joined SCL in July of 2009 as a Senior Research Scholar and Director of Academic and Research Support. He currently is Director of the Center’s Mobility Division. He works closely with SCL’s faculty colleagues to determine where Stanford expertise can best be used to drive change. He brings a broad background of over 20 years of management and engineering experience to his role, including positions in the computing, aerospace, and solar energy industries. He developed a special expertise in working closely with university faculty to develop projects while at Intel, where he was deeply involved in the creation and management of their network of university research labs. He serves on the Advisory Council for AgeTech West. He holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Illinois with an M.S. from the University of Washington.