Companies, research institutes and local governments are working with people across Japan to find solutions to real-life problems, especially loneliness in old age, based on the concept of a "living lab" to promote regional growth.

Using a model that is spreading around the world, mainly from Europe, projects and experiments bring together the elderly and the young and involve them in helping to develop products and services intended for their use.

Itoki Co., a major office furniture company, recently ran trials of a desk prototype designed for easy home use. Participants who gathered at the company's facility in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, were invited to give their opinions.

(Kamakura Living Lab)

"Kamakura Living Lab," which was launched in January last year, is a collaboration between Itoki, several other companies, Kamakura city hall, the University of Tokyo and the city's neighborhood association.

Companies other than Itoki are introducing research on living support robots, next-generation means of transport and personal care products, among others.

A generation of people who migrated to the district in Kamakura-- a Tokyo bed town -- during the era of high economic growth in the mid-1950s to early 1970s, has grown old. Of around 5,000 residents in the district, 45 percent are 65 and older.

Masaaki Kuzuya, 57, a researcher at Itoki's Work Style Institute, said "Normally, the "maker" and "user" are separate, but here everyone is a developer," he said.

The desk is expected to go on sale within the year. "It's exciting because our opinions are reflected in the product," said a 49-year-old local housewife who helped with development.

The living lab concept is based on a "co-creation" approach integrating research and innovation within a public-private-people partnership. There are living labs all over the world, especially in Europe, where they are to be found at around 150 locations. Japan has living labs at some 30 locations, including Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, and Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is also giving its backing with subsidies to push the living lab concept.

Kamakura Living Lab has a tie-up with Sweden where the concept was first advanced. Sweden is developing living lab projects in both countries focused on active ageing.

(Prof. Hiroko Akiyama, right, and Mathilda Tham, 2nd from right, at a conferrence held in Tokyo)

Mathilda Tham, a professor of design from Linnaeus University who is leading the project between the two countries, said, "We are proposing addressing loneliness by connecting different generations. Loneliness among elderly people is a big problem in Sweden also. The living lab can provide platforms where people can meet. We have noticed that all the people want to share their skills," Tham said.

Hiroko Akiyama, a specially appointed professor at the University of Tokyo's Institute of Gerontology where the project is being promoted, is suggesting that local governments get involved in forming policies that affect their own communities.

"It seems more effective to ask residents about their specific needs for their daily lives than a panel of experts. I want them to change this idea and be active in policy planning," Akiyama said.