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Author's profile photo Ann-Sofie Lampert

Helping Elderly People Rediscover their Sense of Value in Society

The SAP Design & Co-Innovation Center (DCC) has a mission: to make design a priority at SAP. “SAP is not perceived as being a leader in design,” explains Matthias Langholz, Strategic Design Consultant at the DCC. “In fact, quite the contrary. Our main aim is to change this with interesting design projects that show that user needs are at the heart of what we do.” Matthias wanted to use his design skills for something with a higher social value and combine his professional and personal goals in one project. Along with Karen Detken, Strategic Design Consultant, he entered into a collaboration with the City of Heidelberg, and it was a success. Together, they developed a service that brings together generations and helps elderly people over the age of 85 to rediscover their sense of value in society.

In this interview, Bärbel Fabig, head of department, Office for Social Affairs and Senior Citizens at the City of Heidelberg, and Birgit Rittinghaus, head of specialized field, Office for Social Affairs and Senior Citizens at the City of Heidelberg, talk about the project and the impact of Design Thinking


How did the City of Heidelberg and SAP get together?

Bärbel Fabig:

First of all, we wouldn’t usually associate SAP with social projects. That’s why we were very interested when Mr. Langholz contacted us. We were curious about what he would be able to offer us and how it would tally with our ideas.

Birgit Rittinghaus:

I have to admit I was mystified by how we could work together with SAP and what project we could get off the ground together. Social work and SAP are two completely different worlds. I was therefore all the more surprised that we found a common language and that, as time went on, we managed to reflect on social issues. We even discovered similarities in the way we run workshops.

In our profession, we learn right from the start to think in terms of people, not in terms of design. We imagine how people tick and try to empathize with them. We may use different vocabulary but we soon realized the design methodology was already part of our way of thinking.

You worked together with the DCC on a service for elderly people over 85. How did design thinking help you to implement the project?

Birgit Rittinghaus:

There was a great diversity of methods, which was fantastic, because I love getting to know and using new methods. For example, we used personas. We created people. We used our imagination and thought about the type of people we want to engage with. What kind of family do they have? What apartment do they live in? What has their life been like? In the second workshop, for example, we made scenes with pieces of paper and card and drew on them; we cut out little buses and schoolchildren to visualize our thoughts. To actually see something in front of us helped us, because I think people take in a lot using their sense of sight. It was fun. Sticking and cutting things out spoke to the inner child in all of us but the underlying idea was serious. We created people in our heads. Maybe they don’t exist in real life exactly as we imagined them, but we can still sense them now.

Bärbel Fabig:

It fascinated me to see how design thinking could be used to record things that were initially completely alien to us but nevertheless made sense in the end. That’s why I was always completely astonished by the results that were presented in the workshops. I would never have expected it. It was very important for us that we had time and that SAP, the SAP AppHaus, and the people we worked with took the time, because you look at concepts differently if you put them down in writing and work with pictures.


What does the solution look like that you designed together with the DCC and then adapted to suit your needs and resources on your own?

Birgit Rittinghaus:

We found it phenomenal how the matrix got longer and longer, how we could visualize things, which processes run (in parallel), who the stakeholders are, who speaks with whom and when, and which discussion then comes to an end or is continued. I was really impressed.

Bärbel Fabig:

In the end, the outcomes were so diverse that it was difficult for us to translate them into action. It was therefore an important step for us to break the results down into manageable chunks in a way that they could be realized on a small scale.

Birgit Rittinghaus:

We couldn’t put what SAP structured into action, because we don’t have the financial and personnel resources or the technical expertise. But we took the concept and adapted it to our needs in an internal workshop. What we came up with was a visitor service for elderly people, which we have already launched. There was a kick-off event and a newspaper article to recruit volunteers. We held three training courses and, at the same time, wrote to elderly people again. Of course, we had to persuade them, but this was easy because we believe in the project. Now we already have seven volunteers and four elderly people who we can bring into contact with each other. That’s a lot for one kick-off event plus training, and is encouraging for the future.

Bärbel Fabig:

We do many such projects and it really is a great success that seven people have already signed up for our project and want to prevent elderly people who can no longer make use of our well-established social structures from living in isolation. When elderly people are still mobile, they can continue to do everything. But we realized a long time ago that possibilities often cease when people have limited physical mobility or suffer from dementia, and can’t leave their home. Social contact then starts to decline. The project fills this gap, and is something we have been working on for a long time. It’s a dream come true. We had wanted to launch such a project for four or five years, but were unable to because of other priorities. Now it’s reality.


How have the project and the design thinking method changed the way you work in the long term?

Bärbel Fabig:

The process and the individual steps – in other words, the holistic view – was certainly very important, but it had to be broken down into pieces. It’s very helpful to have these individual steps visible in front of you and then be able to work with them. The method is highly versatile, especially the creative part, which social work also has, although it’s definitely not as versatile. I believe design thinking has brought added value to our work, but I’m also convinced that we have all benefited on a personal level, too.

Birgit Rittinghaus:

We could only work with one specific approach. The processes are long, there are a lot of people involved, and we had a thousand different ideas. But we were missing the decisive thrust in the right direction. However, with SAP we were able to focus and put our thoughts into action. Having ideas is good, but realizing them is better.


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