One of the people I quote more than any other is not a business guru, a poet, philosopher, famous celebrity or author. It is my 87-year old mother. Born in Scotland, an ancient land filled with intergenerational Celtic wisdom, she is filled with more profound knowledge than anyone I know, and even though I think she struggles to know the nuances of what a design consultant actually does, she has given me better career advice over the years than I have ever received from others in my field. Having traveled the world with my military father, she has seen and experienced the world first hand, and after giving birth to my sister in a rural Pakistani hospital in 1951, pretty much alone without anesthetic, has definitely earned the right to tell me that my headaches are not as bad as I say and to stop complaining. One of my favorite quotes from her is actually about identity: my sister was teased at school for being born in Pakistan even though we were English, and my mother used to say: “Just because you were born in an oven doesn’t make you a biscuit,” a line I still use to this day to talk about transcending one’s circumstances.
One of the topics I have been most interested in during my 10 years at IDEO is the notion of using design to both enable dignified aging but also to drew inspiration and wisdom from the aged. One of my favorite innovations of all time is about the idea of using the wisdom of elders to benefit the next generation, entitled “The Granny Cloud.” It is well known in almost every culture that no-one does love and encouragement better than a granny. Now that same love is being spread across continents, as UK-based grandmothers extend their embrace to school children thousands of miles away in India. The project is the brainchild of Professor Sugata Mitra, who is known for his hole-in-the-wall computer scheme which put basic PCs into some of the poorest parts of India. Professor Mitra installed the first computer on the wall of his Delhi office, opposite a slum, and was amazed to see that the children, initially curious about the machine, soon became self-taught experts. Within days they were able to browse the Internet, cut and paste copy, drag and drop items and create folders.
Prof Mitra noticed that the children did best when an adult was present offering advice and encouragement over their shoulders. There was, he decided, no one so encouraging as a granny and so ‘The Granny Cloud’ idea was born. It is being supported by the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University in the UK. The official name of this social innovation project is Sole (Self Organised Learning Environments), yet it is more commonly known as the ‘granny cloud.’ The grannies, or e-mediators as they are officially known, are not teachers, and the sessions they conduct with the children in India are not lessons. Instead, they read stories to the children and talk about things relevant to them and to the U.K. They encourage, praise and became a “virtual granny” to these Indian children. There are around 300 “grannies” involved in the scheme and is growing all the time.
On the same topic but in complete contrast, Freej (Arabic: فريج) is an Emirati, three-dimensional, computer animated television series for children and adults alike. The English tagline for the show is “The Fun Old Girls.” The show is produced by Mohammed Saeed Harib, who also directed the fifteen standalone episodes of fifteen minutes each. I saw him speak a few years ago at a TEDx event in Dubai and he was mesmerizing. It is the tale of four old Emirati women living in a secluded neighborhood in modern day Dubai. The show’s main characters - Um Saeed, Um Saloom, Um Allawi and Um Khammas - try to live a peaceful life in the midst of the ever-expanding city around them, but the city’s boom unveils new social issues every day that they would have to tackle solve in their own simple way. For those four old women, there is no issue too hard to crack with a good cup of coffee at Um Saeed’s house.
Harib began developing the concept while attending Northeastern University in Boston. A professor asked his class to create superheroes originating from their culture. Harib selected the Emirati Bedouin women of the previous generations of the heroes because they worked and taught in difficult climates and financial environments. While the men in his grandfathers’ generation dove for pearls their wives accomplished the other tasks - hence the birth of four granny Superheroes.
Of course it’s obvious that our elders hold wisdom that is useful for the generations below them, but something is shifting: perhaps technology, so long the purview of the younger generation, is now fostering and facilitating a different kind of transference of that knowledge - less old-wives tales, more internet superhero. I love that this is happening, and that we are not only imparting wisdom but also creating ongoing purpose for older people and deeper intergeneration connections.
For myself, I am fascinated about design and its role in dignity and aging, about defying conventional rules and roles, and of providing ongoing purpose and meaning for the older (and of course, wiser.)
To grannies everywhere.