In the AAL (Ambient Assisted Living) community we often say we want to make an impact, using technology, in the lives of the elderly. But how many of us, tech entrepreneurs especially, have spent time with the elderly? How many of us have shared experiences with them? And listened to their stories?

I’m not a “techy” but I call myself an entrepreneur. At the AAL forum in Ghent, I admitted to myself that I spend most of my time talking rather than listening and, man do I have a big motormouth, often diagnosed with verbal diarrhoea. I went to Ghent with a purpose: find entrepreneurs for my multi-sided platform on social impact investing in elderly care (impact investors on the other side). To be honest, it was a bit disappointing: most project owners I met assumed product market fit because they had sat through user group testing or product design with focus groups, which if anything, resulted in adding or eliminating features on a solution, a solution which already received investment before the start of the project.

So there I was throwing at them my take and solution, also based on literature reviews and other people’s comments and interviews. By 4pm on the last day, my own concept of an impact investment fund had been ripped to shreds by various investors, experts and gurus, and I’d brought out the shovel and spade for a nice big hole in the middle of the auditorium. Luckily for the other guests and the building administrator, that’s when I met Bas and being too tired to sell, and Bas being open enough to talk, I just listened.

Bas Goossen, through his company MiBida, makes a social impact while providing communication technology for the purpose of care. I’m pretty sure his website can explain the technology better than I can but what I learnt by just listening to him is something I wouldn’t have picked up from his website, nor a literature review on the subject matter. To some extent I visualised “a one day in the life” of a social care tech entrepreneur…

So, naturally, after not having to listen to the sound of my own voice for 10 mins (I know its not that long) I ask myself: why don’t I listen more often?

I think we all want to make a social impact in what we do but few of us take the plunge to reach out to the people whose problems we want to solve. I have several excuses for not taking that plunge and my current favourite is: “but there are user experience experts who do that”. Of course, those experts have a lot to offer but I’m sure you’ll agree that listening to gain an understanding of how a person lives doesn’t need any expertise at all.

Take for example, my wife’s grandmother at 90, who used to play tennis and loved to hang out with her friends and family, until she fell, broke her hip and her life completely changed. My initial reaction was “it was bound to happen one day” and then my suggestions to her family were pretty much something out of the AAL project handbook: domestic robots, robot walkers etc. What good is that to a person who loved to play tennis? Have you seen Jimmy Connors play tennis with a robot walker? Actually has anyone seen Jimmy Connors play tennis recently?

So with Bas, I took the first step by listening (and not talking, well… he may tell you I talked but definitely not as much as I do). But how do you really listen without thinking to yourself: “how can I solve his problem?” or “how can I solve his problem AND make money out of it”? My colleagues Astrid Kaag and Marielle Swinkels (from the Province of Noord-Brabant) during one of the last sessions at the forum (and undoubtedly my most inspiring), explained that when we listen to people’s problems or just plain conversations we often do it without immersing ourselves in their world. When I listen, the problem solver in me just wants to jump in straight away and solve it using my CV, and the immediate solution or response can be very detached, and usually useless. But to really understand or for want of a better word “put myself in someone else’s shoes” I learnt that I need to visualise the problem, and to do that I really need to let go of my ego. Huh with my ego, thats a challenge in its self…

So, using my grandmother’s example, we tried this concept of immersion by first opening your mind and heart and then by building a lego representation of her problem. I promise you, we were not smoking anything. The result was a very natural, simple solution.

So imagine what the result would be like if it were my grandmother actually making the lego. Well, probably disastrous because I don’t think she’s ever played with lego but anyway…the exercise is based on Theory U by Otto Scharmer and right now playing out as a big MOOC across the world and the lego building in our forum session was an accelerated version of it. Theory U deserves its own blog piece, probably its own site, so I shall refrain from writing more. Besides, I’m still learning about it…

So what with Bas and my exercise in listening? Well, I admit it was not so easy to keep my ego at bay…so I’m pretty sure tidbits of advice based on an extensive literature review of caregiver randomised control trials surfaced before him. But actually I had no idea how to solve his problem which initially made me feel a little bit…thick? So, needless to say, I’m keen to learn more, especially to understand, in his words, “how intensively he works with them”. This would probably mean shadowing him…and if he gives me the chance I guarantee I’ll be in “listening mode” because he works in Dutch and I can’t speak a word!

(This post was originally published on 16.11.15 by the same author on