Making our cities smarter and more inclusive will become increasingly important in the next decades. Current projections are that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, and with an ageing population comes higher levels of ill-health, impairment and disability. Futurists, tech visionaries and urban stakeholders have been talking about “smart cities” for a number of years but smarter, accessible cities promise to be more inclusive for every citizen – and could transform the lives of those with disabilities.
Smart connected cities are a hot topic. I’ll be speaking at CSW Europe this week about crowd-sourced big data to make mobility easier for disabled citizens, and the up-coming Accessible Smart Cities Round Table event AbilityNet is organising with G3ict and Microsoft in London looks at how connected, digitally inclusive, cities of the future will be better for every citizen. So what benefits could there be for disabled people?
What is a Smart City?
A smart city is one that extensively uses connected devices, commonly called the ‘internet of things‘ or IOT, with the specific aim of delivering services as sustainably and efficiently as possible.
We’ve all heard of or seen gadgets that can be used around the house to automate some of the many tedious tasks we have to perform such as switching on or off lights, closing the garage door or turning up the heat. A tap on your phone’s screen or a voice command will do it for you
Automating your lighting may seem frivolous, but being able to turn off the stove from work when you get a notification that it was left on from a smart smoke alarm could prevent a catastrophe. And it’s hardly trivial when people with disabilities are being hugely empowered by IOT and smarter gadgets around the home.
My sister, for example, is both blind and paralysed with MS and now has the world at her fingertips thanks to her Amazon Echo. She is able to choose her own entertainment such as music, radio stations or podcasts, control her environment with connected smart devices (such as operate her TV with audio description activated) and even make purchases online – all with her voice.
And as the Echo has no screen it doesn’t matter a jot that she can’t see.
Removing mundane tasks will help us work and play smarter
On a much larger scale smart cities will leverage digital-first services, informed by a veritable army of connected devices, to automate many of the more time-consuming tasks that we all have to undertake every day – tasks that contribute to cities being the crowded, chaotic and inefficient places they are today.
A classic example is the parking meter. An estimated 30% of inner-city traffic comprises people looking for a parking space. Give people an app that shows where available spaces are and allows them to pay digitally, and they will never again have to drive in circles, only to discover they don’t have any coins to feed the meter. This will save time and money and reduce frustration, stress, congestion and pollution.
Now imagine that you are disabled and looking for an even-more-illusive disabled parking bay. A smarter city, equipped with the sensors to know which bays (including disabled spaces) are empty and where, combined with the right digital infrastructure to guide drivers to them and easily pay for parking, will help every driver and especially those with more specific needs. Add autonomous vehicles into the mix – driverless vehicles that are set to revolutionise the very concept of car ownership - and a smarter city will be a much less congested place.
At its core, the objective of a smart city is to remove these myriad of mundane tasks that don’t contribute to our work or enjoyment.
The end of queues?
In the connected smart city, people will only physically 'show up' to have an experience or receive a service, not to plan it or purchase it.
Time-consuming activities that do not contribute to work or recreation will be eliminated, such as standing in line to pick up tickets, traipsing to the clinic to pick up a prescription only to then have to take it to the pharmacy and come back again later when it’s ready, or still circling looking for that pesky parking spot.
All services will be optimised so that you only need to travel to experience things face-to-face, such as hands-on work, taking in a show or eating out. All other activities will either be fully automated or able to be done remotely. I’ve explored at length in other posts how technology is a great leveler for people with disabilities.
Providing an accessible (or inclusive) digital interface or technological solution to everyday or professional tasks will disproportionately benefit people with disabilities. If these solutions aren’t accessible, however, then they will be presenting virtual barriers that are as real as physical steps into City Hall.
The cities of 2050 – more people, more disabilities
Making our cities smarter and more inclusive will become increasingly important over the coming decades. According to the United Nations by 2050 more than 6.4 billion people will be urban — that's nearly two-thirds of the world’s population. Moreover, the world’s population is aging – and with age comes a higher level of ill-health, impairment and disability.
It’s clear that smart cities won’t happen overnight. Now is the time to begin the process of building integrated, tech-enabled cities, with a seamless flow between the different services provided for residents, commuters and visitors.
AbilityNet hopes that the principals of inclusive design will be placed at the very heart of this initiative, ensuring that everyone, whatever their needs, will benefit from a smarter urban future.