Do Smart Cities Have an Accessibility Problem?

As a student, the daily walk up London’s Exhibition Road, past its profusion of popular museums, was hindered by groups of tourists that stood four-abreast on the pavement, eager to learn more about the cretaceous period, or space flight, or ornamental Renaissance metalwork.

I was therefore pleased when, one spring, the street was quickly transformed from a bustling thoroughfare for taxis and sports cars into a partially-pedestrianised esplanade, much of the space given over to foot traffic. What I was not expecting, two weeks after its opening, was to find a protest against the new design.

The complaints were from a notable UK sight-loss charity. Exhibition Road’s new pedestrian-first programme had done away with any hard boarder between the pavement and the small remaining traffic thoroughfare, thus excising the crucial marker that blind citizens used to prevent themselves from wandering into traffic.

In a survey of over 250 experts, 60% felt that smart cities are failing older people and those with disabilities.

All too often, when it comes to the future of our cities, the benefits of progress and slick design come at the cost of the experience of disabled people. As investment in so-called ‘smart’ cities gathers pace – the market is forecast to grow from $425bn (£332bn, €372bn) to $1.2 trillion (£940bn, €1tn) in the next four years – is enough attention being paid to this crucial demographic?

I was reminded of this moment when reading about architect Carlo Ratti’s recent collaboration with Google’s Sidewalk Labs. They’ve created a modular paving system that allows the street to become dynamic and responsive, using reconfigurable hexagonal pavers imbedded with a variety of street furniture, from bollards to basketball hoops and programmable lighting.

This last element is key, acting instead of curbs and painted road markings to dictate which activities and vehicles go where. The impending autonomous vehicle revolution is very much the impetus behind the project, promising as it does the ability to both redirect traffic flow at will and, as discussed in our Subconscious Commerce macrotrend, the potential for cars to become platforms for a much broader range of use cases, from stores to salons.

Retailers are already missing out by not catering to disabled people – accessibility is not only a moral but also a business imperative.

But what does this ethos of experimentation – one that characterises much smart city R&D – mean for wheelchair users or people with learning disabilities, for whom familiarity is one of the key principles that help them navigate the urban environment? When the future city’s infrastructure changes from hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute, how can they be certain where they can go and when? These sorts of questions are not being asked by the architects of the future metropolis, as shown by a survey of over 250 city experts, in which 60% of respondents felt that smart cities are failing older people and those with disabilities (source: Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs).

We’ve written previously about the massive opportunities retailers are already missing out on by not catering to these demographics – accessibility is not only a moral but also a business imperative. By 2050, there will be 6.25 billion people living in urban centres according to the UN, 15% of those with disabilities. Whether they’re directly involved in the creation of smart cities, or merely operating within them, companies that want to succeed in this space will only do so by offering environments that truly work for all.

For more on the future of smart cities, read our dedicated Smart Cities vertical.

Source: Do Smart Cities Have an Accessibility Problem?

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