Harnessing smart city solutions to raise the quality of life for the disabled

Zita Goldman looks at how a more user-centred approach can help correct the failings of the Disability Discrimination Act

To mark the 25th anniversary of the UK’s Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) – and the 10th anniversary of its successor, the Equality Act – citizens with physical disabilities were asked whether and how they had seen their mobility change in their lifetime. Having acknowledged that there has indeed been some progress, they talked about stairs they struggled to climb, restaurants they were denied access to, and streets they weren’t able to cross safely.

Despite the noble intentions of such progressive legislation, the perspective of the disabled themselves can often be overlooked in a variety of urban contexts. For example, although the Economist Intelligence Unit’s oft-cited Global Liveability Ranking includes infrastructure among its five main criteria, it reveals nothing about what cities have to offer the disabled. For that, you’ll need to look for separate rankings of inclusion and accessibility – and there is little overlap between the two in these, if at all.

Studying future visions of the smart city through materials promoting the UK smart city testbed, Milton Keynes, Professor Gillian Rose of the Smart Cities in the Making project also found evidence of people with disabilities being underrepresented. A few years ago, the Lutz Pathfinder Project, for example – which tests self-driving pods running on software developed at Oxford University in Milton Keynes – promoted its vehicles with pictures of “the young or younger middle aged, who most often appeared white and who had no visually identifiable disability.” And similar biases, maintains Professor Rose, are not unusual in this area.

Although the disabled may be unwittingly excluded from visions of slick smart city projects focusing on data capture and analysis, they are the top priority of many urban projects leveraging digital technology to help people with mobility challenges live an independent life.

The game-changing nature of these so called assistive smart technologies can’t be overstated. A mobile phone with optical character recognition (OCR) and text-to-speech (TTS) software, for example, can turn any sign in a city into an audio format for the visually impaired, or, if used the other way round, can translate any utterance into a printed message for those hard of hearing.

Meanwhile, in cities such as Chicago, or Warsaw, the winner of the Access City Award 2020, beacons – transmitters using Bluetooth technology – broadcast location-based information to users’ mobile phones. If connected to sensors, these beacons can assist people with disabilities not only in finding building entrances and bus stops, but also the end queues or an empty seat on a bus. Instructions coming from beacons can make purchases from vending machines available to all too.

Digital apps can also increase the efficiency of already existing schemes. Of note is community transport – a subscription service running lift-equipped vehicles on standard routes which they can deviate from to take vulnerable people door-to-door. Although the service has been around for decades, a better use of existing capacity can be achieved by implementing apps already used in taxis and ride-hailing services, that give passengers 10 to 15 minutes’ notice so they can get ready by the time the bus arrives at their door. This represents a tiny investment in mature technology with a considerable return.

Futureproofing innovation for accessibility

The fact that smart city projects aren’t naturally associated with inclusivity doesn’t mean that it always needs to remain that way. A few months ago, a mobility expert explained in a radio programme how – in an aging society – crossings with traffic lights will need to be converted into roundabouts to make driving life easier for the elderly suffering from a stiff neck. And there are many other ways of catering to the needs of senior citizens – a demographic where disabilities are at 46 per cent, compared with 15 per cent in younger age groups.

There are some promising signs – for example, suggesting that developers and manufacturers of autonomous vehicles, the futuristic poster child of smart cities, are already taking the idea of accessibility on board. In the US, autonomous pod manufacturer Local Motors’ Ollie, a self-driving shuttle bus, can have the necessary software installed to give special treatment to those in need. It visually recognises disabled passengers when picking them up, activates a ramp so they can board and can communicate in sign language if necessary. Waymo’s self-driving vehicles, meanwhile, have also been designed with the hard of hearing in mind, with large screens displaying text versions of what the digital drive attendant says.

In the UK, the government is directly involved in similar plans. Under the tenure of then-minister of future mobility Jesse Norman, the Department of Transport published its Future of mobility: urban strategy, launched in March 2019 paper, declaring that innovations must be accessible by design in order to empower independent travel. This is in line with the 2018 Inclusive Transport Strategy, which stated that advances in technology should provide opportunities for all.

As Norman set out, “new technologies including self-driving vehicles and the increased use of mobile apps have the potential to revolutionise everyday journeys for people with mobility issues […] therefore, the needs of older people, and those with visible or hidden disabilities, must be at the heart of all new modes of transport.” To lend clout to the policy, projects not in line with these guidelines may be denied funding.

Research and advisory company Gartner’s estimates that by 2023, 30 per cent of smart city projects will have been discontinued. However, if business and government can co-operate to turn these projects into the means to also achieve public good, Gartner’s projections may yet prove to be wrong.

© Business Reporter 2020