Senior Policy and Research Manager, Policy Connect
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson DBE
From train stations that lack step-free access to uneven pavements, city places and spaces are strewn with barriers that can stop disabled people from participating fully in society.
The lack of accessibility can make it difficult to do things non-disabled people might take for granted — such as meeting with friends; using healthcare, education and other key services; and finding a job.
How technology can help
From artificial intelligence (AI) and big data to the Internet of Things, new technologies promise to make cities more accessible. Traffic lights can be fitted with Bluetooth technology so that people with reduced mobility can activate them via a smartphone app. Digital apps connected to city infrastructure can update users in real time about broken-down elevators and other obstacles they may encounter on their journey and then suggest alternative routes. Extended reality (XR) smart glasses can help visual-impaired people find their groceries on shop shelves unaided.
Technology companies are leading the way in many of these groundbreaking innovations. Google has developed digital tools to help residents navigate city streets by crowdsourcing information about accessibility. The Dutch company Cyclomedia uses 3D mapping technology and AI to provide city administrators with data to repair damaged pavements and create a long-term strategy for accessible streets.
Making sure smart cities work for everyone will require leadership from policymakers.
However, smart cities also pose a significant challenge for disabled people. Like many technologies currently on our city streets, smart city interfaces often rely on devices such as touchscreens and key fobs that are inaccessible to many disabled people. In 2016, New York City was successfully taken to court for installing new information terminals throughout the city which were inaccessible for blind and visually impaired people.
Making sure smart cities work for everyone will require leadership from policymakers. Governments need to ensure smart cities are accountable. They need to establish laws and regulations so that people’s data is used securely.
Ensuring technology works for everyone
National governments and local authorities must be proactive in assuring smart city technologies are aligned with the priorities of inclusive urban living. Transport for London has demonstrated how this can be achieved by requiring developers who wish to benefit from their open data policy to get accessibility training so they can ensure that the new technologies they create can be used by everyone.
Finally, policymakers must make sure locals are actively involved in decision-making as their cities change around them. Disabled residents should be given a voice to help shape the future of their neighbourhoods.