Dear colleagues in the United Nations Family,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I wish to open my remarks by saying thank you to International Council for Caring Communities for calling this important conference.
A century ago, we did not live as long as we do today because we did not live as well. We did not have the social, medical, and political means, let alone the basic human rights many of us - but by no means all - enjoy today. And the world was far tougher. It is wonderful that so many more of us can expect to live to a ripe old age now. Perhaps by the year 2050, and fifty years beyond, we may be able to take a longer life more for granted. Certainly we will have better technology.
If one out of every 10 people in the world today is now 60 years or older, the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs has forecast that by the year 2050 that figure will apply to one out of every five people. But there are some striking differences: In Europe, where people live longest on average, one out of every five people is already over 60 years of age, while in my continent, in Africa, only one in 20 people today reaches that age.
At the hands of the cruel HIV/AIDS pandemic, it is shocking that in Zambia, the current UNFPA indicators show that life expectancy for men is just 32.7 years, and for women 32.1 years – the lowest in the world. In Sierra Leone the figures are 33.1 for men and 35.5 years for women. Compare that to Japan, where men can now expect to live to 77 and women to 85, or Northern and Western Europe and North America where that median is just two or three years lower than in Japan. Indeed, the average life expectancy in developed countries today stands at 72 years for men and 79 for women, while in the less developed regions these figures drop to 61.7 for men and 65 for women. In the world’s least developed countries the current averages are 48.8 for men and 50.5 for women.
These figures show that we live in a very unequal world, and unless we do more to lift the hopes of people in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere who live shorter and more brutal lives, we will compromise our own hopes of giving our children longer lives, even in the wealthier countries.
In the same vein, even if it sounds contrarian at a conference on information technology, when we speak of ageing and connectivity it is the world’s seniors themselves on whom we must focus – not the technology. Technology, Ladies and Gentlemen, has to be engineered to meet the special concerns and needs – and the often-diminished capacities -- of the elderly.
Many of us find in our forties that we have trouble reading the small print. As we grow older, we have problems with hearing, short-term memory and mobility. We need to help our elders amplify their senses, because without the ability to perceive many simply will not have access to information, no matter how cleverly it is transmitted and presented .
How many of you in this distinguished audience have found that you have to show an elderly parent or grand-parent how to connect a computer and switch it on? How often have you had to show them how to find the programme that enables them to get access to the Internet, start writing a letter, or get to grips with the e-mail? How many don’t stick with it because they cannot clearly see the screen or because they cannot coordinate the mouse? I am certain that today’s youth would have the same difficulties in their old age even though they were raised and educated on computers.
So, as our planet steadily turns into a Cybersphere, we have an obligation to ensure that everyone, especially our elders, can breathe in it. The encryption codes and log-in passwords we are being forced to use more and more in our daily communication have to be as easy to remember as the colour-coded pills at the bedside we need to remember take as we get older. Hardware and software designers must expand the definition of consumer beyond those that can easily see and use the controls on today’s cell phones, VCRs and computers. And when our elders become too debilitated to perform even the simplest tasks, society must stand ready to understand their communication needs and respond with both appropriate technology and good old fashioned human assistance.
This is why the words of Professor Dianne Davis, Founding President of the ICCC, at the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva this past December resonate so strongly, and I quote: “The ICCC realised in early 2001 that the most important revolutionary force of the 21st Century, information and communication technologies, were not being fully considered for all generations by either the public or private sectors.”
The fastest growing global population, our seniors, are simply being left out both by decision-makers and by markets. And this is happening at a time when our towns and cities are growing at unprecedented rates. Fifty years ago, just a third of the global population lived in cities. Today, half of us live in the urban world. UN-HABITAT research shows that by 2050 one third of humanity – or 6 billion people – will be living in towns and cities. And those cities and their residents will be wired, so to speak, to a degree we cannot yet imagine.
But I fear that even if we have better technology, millions will be left behind, our seniors along with them. In a process we call the urbanisation of poverty, it is in the developing countries where most people are seeking a better life in the city, and where slums are rapidly growing. It is our mission at UN-HABITAT to create socially and environmentally sustainable human settlements, and to achieve adequate shelter for all. And that means trying to do it inclusively, so that no one is left out, especially our ageing parents and grand-parents. And we all need the technology and the information to enable us to participate in the process of lifting up our living environment.
It is thus imperative that we had to follow up urgently on the recommendations of the WSIS, and the World Summit of Cities and Local Authorities in the Information Society in Lyon, France, also last December.
In paying a special word of tribute to Professor Davis for gathering us all together here today, I now hand the floor back to Professor Gurstein