Inclusive smart cities

Technology moves at pace, and the potential for sensors, automation and energy-efficient buildings to change the lives of the residents moves ever-closer. There is also the potential for technology to provide the opportunity for making smart cities inclusive for people with disabilities right from the design and planning stage.

The rational behind smart cities is that they operate largely without human intervention. Though people will set the technologies to help smart cities function, automation will reduce the necessity for human staff. However, touch screen purchases – such as travel tickets for those with limited motor control – is an example of when a smart city needs to be inclusive if there are no actual staff.
Even with the best inclusivity intentions, practical usability can be found wanting. For example, a defibrillator for a beach was placed behind a shed containing two community wheelchairs. In another venue, the button installed for automatically opening a door was too high for a person in a wheelchair to reach.

If people without disabilities are designing smart cities, they may not so easily understand the different challenges faced by those who are disabled. Obtaining the input of disabled people in the planning processes and intended outcomes for smart cities is key. Before the professionals sign off projects, they need to be aware of, and understand, hidden barriers that people outside the disabled community may not notice before they finish the plans.

Some things are fundamental. For example, public conveniences. Generally, people are not impressed, so how much more difficult must it be for a disabled user when the traffic flow is restricted, and the doorways are narrow? Likewise, the necessity of braille for signage, or a text equivalent to audible feedback, does not tend to be automatically integrated.

It makes perfect sense that well-planned smart city that assists people with disabilities, could benefit everyone. Even temporary disability through injury or age-related difficulties are likely to affect most people at some point.

As they continue to develop, planning and integrating access for everyone who visits or lives in a smart city should be a foregone conclusion.