Dr Emi Kiyota

FuturArc Interview / 3rd Quarter 2023

Dr Emi Kiyota

by Alakesh Dutta

September 20, 2023

Dr Emi Kiyota is an environmental gerontologist, consultant and organisational culture change specialist, with more than 20 years of experience in designing and implementing person-centred care practice in long-term care facilities and hospitals globally. She holds great concern for the needs of elders in low-middle income countries—her contributions include a vast array of national and international initiatives focused on quality improvement in the built environment for long-term care and aging services.

Dr Kiyota is currently based in Singapore and looking into incorporating Ibasho into the Health District@Queenstown. This pilot programme aims to design an age-friendly community by creating integrated solutions to enhance the health and wellbeing of residents across their life stages.


AD: You have an interesting background—being academically educated in architecture and now working as an environmental gerontologist. How do these two domains overlap in your work?

KE: From the very early stages of my academic education, I decided that I was more interested in research than in becoming a practising designer. I therefore started doing research from the time I was in graduate school, all the way till I completed my PhD. All along, my interest has always been in the various ways that design impacts people’s behaviours.

Today, I still work with designers on the aspects of both conceptual and strategic planning. I’m always more interested in the kind of conditions and elements that should be designed to influence people’s behaviour, rather than how to actually design them. This is also the reason why I work quite well with architects. I come to them with information about present and future trends of care in hospitals and eldercare facilities, about how care strategy is going to change, how housing policies are going to change, etc. I bring the strategic thinking and conceptual background to the table and designers bring their creativity, and together we make the person-centric design happen.


AD: You also work with people with disabilities as well as with those suffering from dementia and other cognitive impairments. How should designers approach the design of an environment for them?

KE: I always feel that it is the environment that enables or disables people. When people say that someone is disabled, I don’t agree with it. I think that if an environment can accommodate their special needs, there wouldn’t be disability. For example, if we design a place with many steps and level differences, we already limit the freedom of some people just because we didn’t think enough to provide universal access for people of all ages, physical and/or cognitive capacities. You can design homes that are completely accessible. It will work well whether you have your grandparents, or your aging parents, or you get old yourself. You can be independent, and you don’t need to compromise your life according to age.

On the contrary, if there are too many impediments like stairs and levels, these will limit your freedom to move. Even if you manage to come out of the house, but the closest bus-stop is 500 metres away, you may end up avoiding going out anywhere at all. So, the thinking must continue from the micro-scale to the macro. I don’t think that we have done a good job so far about this kind of thinking. There is a lot we can do and do better.

For people with dementia, what happens often is that we tend to limit where these people can go, because we are worried that they may get lost. But if you put yourself in their shoes, this is like erecting walls all around them. What is then the meaning of life for them?

Instead, what I encourage is to create neighbourhoods that enable them to expand their boundaries. Such neighbourhoods should be mostly walkable and car-free. They should create means by which relevant people can be alerted if someone with dementia moves beyond the broader limit of the neighbourhood. So, instead of creating walls and physical boundaries, we should create communities and neighbourhoods where such people can walk freely. And if they do get lost because they may forget their directions, they can still be safe.


AD: You are now working on larger healthcare-centric projects like the Health District@ Queenstown in Singapore. How do you translate your experience and success with the Ibasho concept to a project like this?

KE: There is hope and there is reality. And what I have is hope. We are hoping to create action at the grassroots level. Since it is a health district, we are trying to empower the community members to take on a healthy lifestyle. They will be encouraged to exercise, do regular check-ups, and be informed about preventative healthcare. At the same time, we want the people, particularly the older persons, to be engaged in meaningful activities, similar to what we do in Ibasho projects. It is through these activities that we seek to promote intergenerational bonding, lifelong education, and enable the older persons to be part of the society and the workforce. We are also looking at the design and planning aspect of living units, and how we can influence the actions and behaviours of the communities in these HDB flats. It is a whole-of-society sort of approach.

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Alakesh Dutta is currently a PhD student at the National University of Singapore (NUS), as well as a Research Associate for the Master’s programme in Integrated Sustainable Design at NUS. He is also a founding partner of RE I AD (Regenerative and Ecological Approach to Design), which is a research-based design set-up practising regenerative design. His current research interests are anchored to systems thinking in design and the integration of food-energy-water systems in urban and building forms. Prior to his current work, Alakesh was working in the industry for 11 years in Singapore, India and the US. His past projects include the NUS SDE4 Net-Zero Energy Building and the Vertical Fish Farm for Apollo Aquaculture Group.

Read more stories from FuturArc 3Q 2023 Green Awards: Cross-Generational Architecture!


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