Smart Senior Learning Centre: An elderly-friendly place for digital learning that can benefit everyone

Home / Programme / Bachelor of Science (ASD) / Courses / 20.112 Sustainable Design Option Studio 2 / Smart Senior Learning Centre: An elderly-friendly place for digital learning that can benefit everyone

Studio Instructor

Andrew Lee

‘SINGAPORE – The Republic’s population size is expected to reach 6.34 million in 2030, based on projections from the United Nations (UN) released this year.

By then, there will be 806,000 people under 15 years old, and 1.8 million people who are aged 65 years or older – making up about 28 per cent of the total population. The numbers will reach 722,000 and 3.08 million, respectively, out of a total population of 6.58 million by 2050. This means that in about three decades, almost half (47 per cent) of Singapore’s total population will be at least 65 years old.’
Siau Ming En1

‘If you’re trying to get across the street and there are no curb cuts, six inches might as well be Mount Everest. Six inches makes all the difference in the world if you can’t get over the curb.’
Lawrence Carter Long2

Setting the scene

The cohort of baby boomers, born after World War 2 and before the mid-1960s, is a generation that grew up during a sustained period of peace in Singapore. It is a generation that has led a charmed life filled with education opportunities. It is a generation that is often credited as having made Singapore a better place with economic growth and prosperity. It is also a generation that views the future with optimism.

By 2030, all baby boomers will be age 65 or older. As the generation grows up, some at the peak of their careers, others in retirement, it now must face new challenges – the challenges pose by aging and staying adaptable in a quick-changing digital world.

Baby boomers grow up in an environment filled with indicators of industrialization and progress such as busy roads that are lined with cars and public transport; lively sidewalks with lots of commercial activities and curbs, soaring skyscrapers filled with atrium and split-level interiors. As baby boomers grow older, problems of getting around their physical environment becomes increasingly difficult – their physical abilities start to deteriorate, their vision start to deteriorate, their hearing start to deteriorate and for many, cognitive abilities may start to deteriorate.

What was previously seen as indicators of progress become inhibitors to movement as human bodies start to age. The aging bodies start to feel a sense of estrangement from the familiar physical environment. This estrangement is compounded by the introduction of a new digital environment characterized by constant information, communication and technology changes. For example, getting information via the computer or handphone instead of reading the newspaper; communicating with a friend via phone, email or SMS instead of writing a letter; or making electronic payment via an app instead of using cash or cheque. The previous environment can appear strangely unfamiliar and unfriendly.

Think about this. For a large part of their life, people can get around on their own and use cash to pay for their food and purchases. Now they may need assistance for someone to push them around or they may need the assistance of a walking cane and they may need to order their food online in an increasingly digitalized society…and then, there is still the issue of moving up and down curbs, thresholds and steps.

Can anything be done to reclaim the environment and self-worth for an aging and elderly generation?

The Curb Cut Effect

The curb cut is a graded small ramp built into in an elevated curb to allow smooth movement between the sidewalk and the road. It was originally designed to make public street accessible to people with disability. Curb cuts are fine examples of design that goes unnoticed by many. Once the curb cuts or small ramps are installed, it is a benefit not only for people with disability, the elderly but for everyone. Curb cuts make it easier for parents pushing strollers, tourists carrying luggage and delivery men with loaded goods, to use the sidewalks. (Sheridan, 2020)3

The curb cut effect is applicable everywhere. It is found in closed captioning or subtitling on film which was first developed to make movies friendly for people with hearing impairment. It has since been used widely to translate foreign language movies and when emails are sent. It is found in remote controlling which was first developed to allow the operation of devices that are out of convenient reach. It has since been used on a wide array of home applications including controlling the television, fan, air conditioning unit home, computer, cameras, car doors and security gates. It can be found in door handles. It was first developed to provide a better grip for people with learning disability than turning doorknobs. It also makes it easier to open the door with our elbows when we are carrying loads of stuff with both our hands. Captioning, remote controlling and door handles have made our environment better.

The elderly generation has exposed the user-unfriendliness of our environment. Reshaping the environment to make it more elderly-friendly is never simple. Yet being able to introduce more elderly-friendly curb cut effects to exterior public and interior spaces can be the first steps towards reclaiming the environment for an aging generation.

Revisiting the Curb Cut Effect

Many of the challenges and difficulties that the elderly encounter in the physical and digital environment can be overcome by using devices that may help them. Yet many refuses to use these devices. Why is this? Take the case of the walking frame. Researcher, Don Norman explains that while the walking frame is functionally able to help the elderly in their movement, it sets the elderly in a hunched posture and sends out a signal that becomes a stigma – that elderly people are old, slow and cannot function well.

He points out that the walking frame is so badly design. It is made of tubular steel, is cheap, ugly and it turns away many elderly people who need it but refuse to use it because of its associative stigma.

While problems may arise when people get older, it also means opportunities for better design to support elderly users. The very best design will help the elderly but can also be adapted by everyone else. (Norman, 2021)4

In this studio, students will explore two core attitudes in the design of a smart senior learning centre with elderly-friendly and inclusive spaces for digital learning:

  • Making something better for the elderly can make it better for everyone.
  • Making something better for the excluded elderly can make it better for everyone.


The smart senior learning centre will be a minimum of 400 sqm. Students will define what smart senior learning centre might be, how its various social, learning and innovation functions can work for the elderly. A suggested list of possible functions includes:

  • Social Function
    A reception space that will encourage socialisation among the elderly through activities such as therapeutic horticulture, social chess, or communal cooking.
  • Learning Function
    The main space that will facilitate digital learning for the elderly through inter-generational learning, consultation-based learning, peer-based learning, etc.
  • Flexible Function
    A flexible space where innovative products and technology designed for the elderly can be showcased and tested.


The site is The Majestic, a historic building on Eu Tong Sen Street in Chinatown, next to NEL Line Chinatown MRT station. Located between the People’s Park Complex and Yue Hwa Building, it was known as Majestic Theatre, which was a Cantonese opera house.

The theatre was built by philanthropist Eu Tong Sen in 1927 and attracted the most glamorous opera stars from China who would perform to capacity audiences. A key feature of the Art Deco building is its decorated façade of hand-painted tiles depicting opera characters and flying dragons. In 2003, it became a shopping mall and took on its current name.5

The students will investigate two aspects of the design brief which include:

  • Re-purposing part of the existing Majestic building as a Smart Senior Learning Centre with elderly-friendly digital learning spaces.
  • Developing elderly-friendly settings, furniture and products that will be mocked-up, tested, adapted and eventually prototyped for the Smart Senior Learning Centre.

For the first half of the semester, students will re-purpose the 1st storey of the Majestic building as a Smart Senior Learning Centre, an elderly-friendly digital learning space. The Centre will be retrofitted to include learning settings for the elderly to understand the use of digital apps. Such learning settings may include everyday themes such as:

  • ibuy retail theme.
  • ifarm & cook theme.
  • igym & stay healthy theme.
  • iwork at home theme.

Students will develop a setting complete with furniture and product design. These furniture and products should demonstrate thoughtful design that can support the needs of the elderly.

For the second half of the semester, students will package elderly-friendly products and furniture into mobile architecture units that can inhabit exterior public spaces. These mobile architecture units are easily transported to various outdoor settings and recognizable as urban meeting places for the elderly to interact, learn and have fun.

Studio Objective

The studio explores the idea of ‘designing for people’. Students will design a user-friendly learning environment to help smart seniors appreciate e-learning and payment methods. Every, furniture, interior and exterior setting is designed with function and users in mind.

Observe Elderly [1 week]

Observe the elderly on the given site.

Record the everyday lives of the elderly using observational film technique.

Infer the needs of the elderly from the observational films.

Compare the needs of the elderly with those shown in the consultant PID’s study.

Study Precedent [1 week]

Study a precedent for each theme.

Study the product, furniture and setting that is used in each precedent.

Build a 3-dimesional model of the site and their surrounding buildings.

Highlight the possible spaces that the elderly will gather.

Generate – Furniture & Product [1 week]

Generate ideas of elderly-friendly furniture & product through quick hand sketches.

Develop – Furniture & Product [2 week]

Develop ideas of elderly-friendly furniture & product through making models and cad drawings.

Build a 3-dimensional model of the 1st storey plan of the Majestic.


Extend 1 – Interior Settings [2 weeks]

Extend the idea of elderly-friendly furniture to an interior setting through workflow diagrams, hand sketches and models.

Extend 2 – Elderly Public Spaces [1 week]

Extend the urban context to include Pagoda Street, Terengganu Street, Kreta Ayer Square, Sago Street and Maxwell Food Court.

Identify possible public or urban spaces where the elderly will gather.

Build a 3-dimensional model of selected public space.

Extend 3 – Exterior Settings [2 weeks]

Extend and package elderly-friendly furniture into mobile architecture which can be deployed in lively exterior settings.

Build a 3-dimensional model of the mobile architecture.


Week Date Program Key Dates
01 17/05 Observe Elderly
Observational Film
02 24/05 Study Precedent
Site Model + Precedent
03 31/05 Generate -Furniture & Product
Hand sketches
04 07/06 Develop -Furniture & Product
Models of Furniture
05 14/06 Develop – Furniture
Model of Majestic
06 21/06 Extend 1 – Settings
Hand sketches of settings
07 28/06 Recess
08 05/07 Extend 1 – Interior Settings
Models of settings
Mid Review
09 12/07 Extend 2 – Public spaces for the elderly
Model of selected public spaces
10 19/07 Extend 3 – Exterior Settings
Hand sketches of mobile architecture
11 26/07 Extend 3 – Exterior Settings
Models of mobile architecture
12 02/08 Production-Drawings, Models & Fabrication
13 09/08 Production-Drawings, Models & Fabrication
14 16/08 Production-Drawings, Models & Fabrication Final Review


  1. Ming En, Siau. ‘Elderly to make up almost more than half of S’pore population by 2050: United Nations.’ Today, Aug 13, 2019.
  2. Cynthia, Gorney. ‘Curb Cuts.’ 99% Invisible, April 27, 2021.
  3. Emma, Sheridan. ‘The curb cut effect: How universal design makes things better for everyone.’ UX Collective, Feb 1, 2021.
  4. Don, Norman. ‘Design for the Elderly.’ NN/g Nielson Norman Group, January 22, 2021.

Reading List


The Design of Everyday ThingsDonald Norman – 2002

Things That Make Us SmartDonald Norman – 1993

User FriendlyClift Kuang and Robert Fabricant – 2020

Beautiful Users: Designing for PeopleThomas Carpentier and Tiffany Lambert – 2014

The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday eRoman Mars and Kurt Kohistedt – 2020


Construction and Design Manual Accessibility and WayfindingPhilipp Meuser – 2019

Construction and Design Manual Accessibility ArchitectureJoachim Fischer and Philipp Meuser – 2009

Humanscale OriginsThe IA Collaborative Team – 2017

Furniture, Interiors and Mobile Architecture

Sketching For Architecture & Interior DesignStephanie Travis – 2015

Wood Pallet Projects: Cool and easy-to-Make Projects for the Home and GardenChris Gleason – 2013

PlyDesign: 73 Distinctive DIY Projects in PlywoodPhilip Schmidt – 2012

Construction and Design Manual: Mobile ArchitectureKim Seonwook and Pyo Miyoung – 2012