The journey of life

March 31, 2020

Nic Palmarini grew up in the picturesque surrounds of the Italian Riviera, with his extensive CV charting time across Europe and the US. Now, as director of the Newcastle-based National Innovation Centre for Ageing, his journey has taken another geographical turn. Investing his deep knowledge and experience in the endeavour, he is helping guide the centre’s progress as it shapes greater understanding of new products and services that have the capacity to help people live better, longer lives. Here, he speaks to Steven Hugill about supporting the ageing population, the importance of data and why the North East feels like a home away from home

The similarities are not immediately obvious.

The Italian Riviera, with its azure waters and pastel-coloured old towns, presents a romanticised glimpse of life on the Mediterranean.

Move the compass to North East England, where its coastline meets the bracing North Sea, and the scene is altogether different.

Many might struggle to find a comparison between the two.

Nic Palmarini, however, isn’t one of them.

For the son of Italian fishing village Finale Ligure, which sits between the opulence of Nice and the bustling port of Genoa, North East England represents comforting familiarity.

“I’m from the seaside and therefore used to being on the coast, so when I arrived in Newcastle, I felt at home in seconds,” says Nic.

“Of course, the cultural heritage with us Europeans is also ingrained.

“We have a lot in common – the Romans built a wall in Newcastle remember!” he laughs.

The region’s seaboard and Emperor Hadrian’s eponymous giant structure aside, Nic’s acquaintance with the North East was made all the more easier by another factor.

Appointed director of the Newcastle Helix- based National Innovation Centre for Ageing last year, he is playing a pivotal role in augmenting the city’s – and the wider region’s – position on the global map.

Founded in 2014 with a £40 million investment from the Government and Newcastle University, the ground-breaking endeavour highlights the education institution’s place as a trailblazer across international research and investigative work.

Harnessing the power of artificial intelligence and data, the centre is working to shape greater understanding around innovating new products and services that have the capacity to improve – and extend – lives across the world’s ageing population.

Bringing together internationally-renowned experts, academia and industry, it also incorporates VOICE – an organisation wherein citizens contribute their experiences, ideas, insights and vision – to help further shape research and innovation.

Previous projects include collaboration with Cambridge Consultants to support a new concept for women experiencing menopausal symptoms, and a task alongside Design Network North that devised improved public seating for the ageing population, which was based on feedback from VOICE members.

For Nic, the desire to better understand human life and drive palpable change capable of facilitating longer, more independent living, is a golden thread that runs throughout his entire career.

It began in earnest back in his native Italy when, as a younger man obliged to carry out military service, he worked with the counter-terrorism element of the country’s police force.

Based in Milan, he was a member of the border protection squad that scrutinised the city’s airborne travel.

The experience gave Nic a window into countless worlds, encounters he says that continue to inform his present-day outlook.

“It was very interesting because it helped me understand more about humans,” he says. “Some of the stories were really sad and complex, but it gave me new skills.

“The police and similar services are interfaces that help people in what is sometimes a hidden world.

“You do your work and you come home, but where are all of the things that you have learned that day,” continues Nic, referring to how his police role really sparked his desire to support the lives of others.

“Can you harness your experience into something that helps people?

“My military service allowed me to stand in other people’s shoes and become a better human being for it,” adds Nic, who studied political science at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore and is now honoured as a notable alumnus on the institution’s website.

After his service drew to a conclusion, Nic moved into advertising and communications, wherein he rose through the ranks and organisations to become a creative director at McCann Erickson Interactive in the late 1990s.

Here, Nic helped Telecom Italia gain greater leverage as an internet provider in what was then still a relatively primitive digital environment.

However, it was when he moved to international technology behemoth IBM in the early 2000s
that Nic’s career really began to arc more closely towards his current North East undertaking.

One of his first roles was across customer experience, branding, usability and design, which explored the development of services with the addition of technology.

He later headed a unit that looked at the use of technology to help people with special needs, which in time grew to encompass the ageing population and issues around isolation and loneliness.

As director of IBM’s Human Centric Solutions operation, Nic oversaw a first-of-its kind project that used the Internet of Things to support care givers in northern Italy.

He features in a company video, which uses the title ‘Solutions for an Ageing Population’,
to highlight the life of Zita, a resident of the South Tyrolean city of Bolzano, who has lost her husband.

Using shots of Zita at her sewing machine, the production looks at how technology is able to stitch together a greater understanding of a person’s life by collecting data from everyday activities inside their own four walls.

Speaking to camera, Nic talks about the value assigned to knowing Zita’s routine – from waking up and mealtimes, to abnormalities that could infer potential illness – which he says is crucial in helping to reduce the burden on the country’s social care system.

“It showed how technology can help to be more part of society and how the focus is not just on a person’s life,” Nic reveals about the project.

“It is about what they need in that stage of life.”

From here, Nic’s work on the role of technology – and the growing importance of artificial intelligence (AI) alongside the ageing population – spread further still.

Taking on the position of global manager of AI for healthy ageing, and then AI ethics lead at the $250 million MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab in the US, his work allowed clients worldwide to accelerate changes and improvements to people’s lives.

With such a background, his arrival at the National Innovation Centre for Ageing attracted obvious excitement – and the feeling was mutual.

“North East people are very friendly, and as a population there is a fierce determination to develop the region to be as good as – if not better than – anywhere in the world,” says Nic.

“There is a real ethical aspect to our work, which seems to be a narrative that is embedded in the region.”

Operating from The Catalyst building, which, when the sun catches its giant, criss-crossing golden beams becomes a literal beacon for positive change, the National Innovation Centre for Ageing forms an integral part of the £350 million Helix science and technology quarter.

Reinvigorating land that was formerly a Scottish and Newcastle Breweries’ bottling plant – and before that a colliery – the building, says Nic,
is akin to an opera house, with its innovation creating “different symphonies and a beautiful concert for the outside.”

“What we are trying to shape is a life-changing model,” says Nic.

“We are heavily grounded in data and our work dispels the perception that ageing has nothing to do with data.

“We are so holistic in terms of dealing with people, their personal issues, and their health and transportation needs; we are working with life.

“When you think of ageing, some will think of healthcare and non-profit support.

“But we are trying to ensure there are other elements of the narrative and show the opportunities that can benefit everyone,” continues Nic.

“(The model goes) from life, to data, to personal help, and by using VOICE we are able to enable businesses, who may not see the ageing population as their target, to make them part of the scenario too.

“What we are doing has all the makings of a renaissance.”

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