Institute for the Future

Interactive Scent Experience, 2014, for the IFTF Health Horizons Conference, San Francisco, CA

The Institute for the Future is a strategic research group that forecasts how emerging trends and discontinuities, in areas ranging from health care and technology to the workplace and human identity, will transform global society.

I was asked by IFTF to create a hands-on scent experience for the 90 attendees at their June 2014 conference, themed “Living Longer, Aging Well.” Working with a researcher at IFTF, we came up with a 2-part experience designed to highlight the subliminal effect that odors can have on our attitudes towards aging and the elderly.

On the first day of the conference, participants evaluated the affective impact of a range of unidentified odors, using a semantic framework developed by researchers at the University of Geneva. Each odor was from one of three categories: Disgust/Irritation, Happiness/Well-being, Energizing/Refreshing; and each table of 10 participants was exposed to only one category. The single odor that was rated most impactful in each of the 3 categories was noted, and used for the second activity.

Before leaving at the end of the day, each participant was given two scent swatches – one with the winning scent from the category they had evaluated earlier that day, and another from one of the other two categories. For the second activity, they were asked to smell one of the swatches, and write “a short excerpt related to aging or an older adult,” then to smell the other swatch and do the same. The instructions noted that the excerpts “can be memories or they can be future scenarios.”

Studies have shown that exposure to an unpleasant scent can subconsciously impact a range of behaviors, for example prompting intolerance for same sex marriage, increasing the conservativism of certain political positions, or increasing aggression. On the other hand, aromatherapy relies on the positive, therapeutic impact of specific naturally-occurring odor molecules. By exposing people to scents with both positive and negative affect and asking them to do an open-ended thought exercise related to older adults and aging, our “Living Longer, Aging Well” experiment sought to call attention to the importance of accounting for the larger sensory environment when designing systems and environments for an aging population.

The results of this informal experiment certainly were not statistically significant, but the exercises did get people to think more holistically about what it means to design for aging well.

Some of the excerpts written by participants

Disgust/Irritation category:

I sat at my Grandpa’s house, at his weathered wood counter. He is frantically rushing to cook tortillas and rice for me to eat, despite my stated refusal. It was a ritual of ours that I experienced time and time again, and reminded me of my Mexican roots, even across geographic and temporal boundaries.

Talking with my parents about where (and how) they want to live now … moving, de-acquisition (a new word!), finances, doctors, … the lot!

The future is grim for those who choose not to have kids. With a plathora of products and services that are designed for grandparents, or assuming at least a close family member, what happen to those who choose to live their lives that are perhaps more career focused (not family oriented)? How are their needs different from the “grandparents group”? Who are their caregivers?

Happiness/Well-being category:

My mother-in-law came to stay with us when our first child was born, to help out for a few weeks. The first outing with the new baby was to an ice-cream/candy store.

Bittersweet events in life. As we age, we will increasingly gain and loose relationships, people, pets, but memories usually stay. How can we better design for the transition? Can we provide a better support system for those who just lost their spouses? Friends? As we age, what is it that we can look forward to (besides the post-retirement liberty)? How can we continue to be useful, and contribute back to the larger community?