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Charting the Course for Future Studies and Tool-Based Products in Flanders: Insights from URBANAGE

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

After more than two years of co-creative application development, a critical assessment was needed to understand how older adults, a primary target demographic, perceived the applications that had been developed. To this end, workshops were organised in Leuven and Gent in June and August 2023. These workshops were a collaborative effort between the Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (IMEC) and the Digital Flanders Department of the Flemish Government. The primary objective was to empirically test specific functionalities developed for the Flanders pilot region within the broader URBANAGE project.


Workshop Goals


The primary focus of these workshops was to evaluate the combined use of the Green Comfort Index (GCI) colour-coded map and the feedback application. The GCI serves as a comprehensive metric, distilling the comfort levels of older citizens into a single value for each hexagon surface unit on a map. This index considers various parameters/indicators, defined during co-creation activities, using varying quantification methods and weight settings. The feedback app, on the other hand, empowers older citizens with the possibility to provide their feedback on various aspects and indicators within the GCI in any location they would like to.


The workshops were designed with several key objectives:

  1. Revalidation of Initial Needs: The first goal was to re-evaluate the requirements identified during the initial co-creation workshops held two years ago and their translation to a digital application. This reality check sought to determine whether these needs remained relevant, whether new GCI indicators had emerged, and if the importance of these indicators had shifted over time.

  2. Understanding User Willingness: The workshops aimed to gain deeper insights into the willingness and motivations of older adults to use the presented functionalities. Additionally, they sought to gather the perspectives and assessments regarding the potential adoption of our solutions by other target groups, such as civil servants, with the overarching objective of improving urban comfort for older citizens.

  3. User Engagement and Exploration: Another important aspect was observing how older adults engaged with and explored the solutions we had developed.

  4. Feedback and Enhancement: The workshops aimed to collect valuable, objective, and constructive feedback, suggestions, and ideas regarding the functionality, usability, applicability, accessibility, and user-friendliness of our solutions. This feedback served as a valuable foundation for potential application updates and the development of guidelines for future improvements.

Approach


Both workshops shared similar methodologies, albeit with slight variations in their execution. Each session commenced with a broad introduction to the URBANAGE project, specifically emphasising the Flemish pilot. Subsequently, we provided more in-depth explanations of the GCI map and the feedback application.


Older (50+) adult participants with varying backgrounds and digital literacy were given a hands-on experience, learning how to navigate the GCI map on their smartphones. This exploration took place against the backdrop of the impressive IMEC-tower in Leuven and the "de Krook" Library and Media Centre in Gent. This was facilitated through QR-code scanning, and participants were guided through the process of logging into the feedback app. Not only was the usability tested, also the applicability was monitored.


In Leuven, an additional element was introduced involving outdoor testing of the feedback app and GCI map. This unique segment involved members of the Elderly Council of Leuven and Seniorama, a local non-profit organisation dedicated to older citizens. The session took place on a sunny afternoon and featured an interactive tour. During this tour, participants discovered that certain areas received higher GCI-scores due to various factors, such as the presence or vicinity of trees, benches, park areas, public toilets, and shaded spaces. Following the outdoor activity, we collectively explored the map generated with feedback, including text and images all participants contributed.


In Gent, the approach differed slightly. In addition to the GCI map and feedback app, we also introduced the scenario builder. This tool allows virtual elements to be integrated into the landscape manually, enabling investigators to evaluate the impact of interventions on the Green Comfort Index.


The introduction of the scenario builder was specific to Gent and was prompted by the presence of two civil servants from the city of Gent in addition to the older adults.


Following the outdoor activity in Leuven and the introduction of the scenario builder in Gent, both workshop days concluded with a guided, in-depth discussion. Participants actively engaged in these discussions, providing valuable insights and helpful suggestions. Additionally, they were requested to complete a hardcopy survey, contributing further to our understanding of their perspectives and experiences.


General Findings


Below, we present overarching conclusions within the context of our predefined objectives. The older adults participating in the workshops constitute a dynamic and highly motivated group with distinct needs. Their sincere interest in the project and their unwavering enthusiasm to enhance the quality of life for older individuals in the city is both inspiring and heartening. In this publication, we refrain from delving into granular, ad-hoc feedback and instead, focus on the collective, universally applicable insights that have emerged.


The support base within the older citizen target group, as initially defined during a series of co-creation workshops two years ago, has been reaffirmed. However, we observed a shift in the weighting of specific indicators. Loneliness has become a prominent concern, especially among the oldest age segment. Additionally, there is a heightened awareness among older adults that maintaining health requires proactive effort. They view the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic as a significant factor and recognise an overlap with the needs of age groups below 50.

  • Proximity of Social Interaction Facilities: The workshops revealed a consistent emphasis on the importance of having facilities that facilitate social interaction, such as play yards, restaurants, pubs, access to social events, and public meeting points.

  • Increasing Emphasis on Outdoor Activities: Access to outdoor activities is increasingly prioritised, particularly by the younger segment of older adults. Suggested indicators range from sports facilities to the availability of measures that promote walking, such as public dog play yards.

The willingness to adopt a tool that combines the GCI and feedback opportunities is substantial among older adults. They perceive the added value and consider the tool a valuable service that is currently lacking in the cities of Leuven and Gent. An intriguing idea that emerged was to provide community rangers with this tool, allowing them to post real-time comments while patrolling the city. In a later stage, when enough data are available, AI could be introduced to refine GCI scores based on written comments. The participating groups also expressed a desire for local governments to adopt and implement this solution for the entire city, tailored to specific, well-defined age groups with varying needs and preferences.


We received a wealth of valuable feedback and ideas, and technical suggestions were carefully examined by the technical team. Where relevant to the project, improvements were integrated or documented as guidelines for future developments beyond this project. While we won't delve into fragmentary comments and detailed suggestions, we can share some general findings to serve as a foundation for further considerations in the section below.

  • Incomplete Datasets for Green Comfort Index: Some attendees found it misleading that not all relevant datasets, particularly those significant to them, are included in the current calculation of the Green Comfort Index. This feedback suggests that there might be a need to expand and refine the data sources to provide a more comprehensive and accurate assessment of green comfort.

  • UI/UX, Usability, and Accessibility Issues: Although the tool was generally perceived as intuitive, feedback from workshop attendees revealed certain shortcomings in user interface (UI), user experience (UX), usability, and accessibility. Notably, these issues were not apparent during previous workshops with representatives of the pilot cities of Gent, Leuven, Roeselare, Tielt, and Turnhout. What developers might consider straightforward actions, such as app installation and login, are not always evident to older adults. These workshops served as a reality check in this regard.

  • High Expectations of Older Citizens: The expectations of older citizens are high, as exemplified by their interest in the presence of benches in the urban landscape. To make these amenities truly usable, older citizens request additional information on factors like bench occupancy, availability, and comfort, including back support.

Guidelines, Indications, and Recommendations


The URBANAGE GCI-calculator is a versatile and powerful tool for assessing comfort in urban environments. Its primary strength lies in its adaptability, as it permits the incorporation of diverse datasets, the utilisation of various quantification methods (including distance, surface, counts, and measurement values), and the ability to adjust the weight of each indicator to fine-tune the Green Comfort Index in accordance with the specific goals of a project. A key insight derived from URBANAGE workshops involving older adults underscores the paramount importance of this adaptability.


It's the responsibility of project managers and designers to align the vision, scope, resolution, legacy, and approach of a study with the chosen datasets, calculation methods, and the weighting of indicators. However, our findings offer valuable insights and guidelines for customising the set-up of future studies and projects using URBANAGE solutions, especially when focusing on the older adult target group (50+):

  • Consider Geospatial Diversity: Acknowledge the geospatial diversity in the expectations, approaches, visions, and needs of older adults. Even within the same city, significant differences in needs may exist, as exemplified by the variation between neighbourhoods in Gent. Consider local contexts when implementing URBANAGE solutions.

  • Acknowledge Demographic Differentiation: Recognise that older adults’ opinions, needs, and visions cannot be generalised into a one-size-fits-all group of 50-plus citizens. It's vital to distinguish between age categories and even consider gender differences, depending on the study's scope. Further investigation may be needed.

  • Take Age and Gender into Account: The dynamics, habits, interests, and needs of those aged 50-59 are notably distinct from those aged 80-89, often related to varying levels of mobility and activity. Interestingly, solutions for those aged 50-59 often resemble those for individuals aged 40-49, who aren't typically seen as older adults. The observations were further corroborated by workshop attendees, who pointed out that habits and comfort-related routines can vary by gender.

  • Address Digital Literacy and Engagement: Several attendees from both workshops noted that the reluctance to use digital solutions increases proportionally with age within the older adult group. Even more tech-savvy participants exhibit hesitation when dealing with technology, such as smartphone settings, QR codes, and account creation. Creating user-friendly interfaces and procedures, foreseeing non-digital dissemination alternatives (for example, by distributing hardcopy GCI-maps), and providing support for those with lower digital literacy is essential.

Incorporating these insights and guidelines into future studies and projects that use URBANAGE solutions will result in more tailored and effective initiatives that better address the diverse needs and comfort preferences of older adults within Flanders. It's highly recommended to conduct co-creation workshops with the specific target groups for each future project to reveal additional fine-grained differentiations and ensure that the solutions are truly aligned with their expectations and needs.




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