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Empowering vulnerable citizens in smart cities

Smart city initiatives aim to make our lives easier but cities can’t be truly ‘smart’ if they fail to serve entire groups of society.

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Navigating the way through our cities can be frustrating. Common nuisances include public transport delays, trying to move through large crowds of people and putting up with constant noise.

 

However, we often take for granted our ability to move around cities suffering just mild frustration, as opposed to fear and isolation.

 

Unfortunately, this is not a luxury afforded to many of the vulnerable among our societies, such as disabled or elderly citizens. Something as commonplace as getting to the shops – including crossing roads, getting off at the right bus stop and getting in and out of buildings – can involve major barriers.

 

IoT and interconnectivity present some incredible opportunities for enhancing the quality of life for less able-bodied individuals.

 

Smart city initiatives aim to make our lives easier but cities can’t be truly ‘smart’ if they fail to serve entire groups of society. IoT and interconnectivity present some incredible opportunities for enhancing the quality of life for less able-bodied individuals. Cities need to take this opportunity to become more inclusive, rather than allow technological advancements to divide us and further isolate vulnerable communities.

 

Smart Cities for All

 

Despite inclusivity progress perhaps not being where it should be, there are change agents in the market.

 

The Microsoft-backed Smart Cities for All is one such example. The brainchild of Dr Victor Pineda and James Thurston, the project is a collaboration from their individual organisations, G3ICT and World Enabled. The pair shared a concern that smart implementations were ignoring the need for inclusive accessibility, and so they set about finding a solution.

 

The Smart Cities for All Digital Inclusion Toolkit was born – the guide looks at key barriers to inclusion based on findings from a global study, and offers expert advice on resolving the issues.

 

The first of four tools in the toolkit is a procurement tool, to help cities make sure their technology investments promote inclusion and that they only buy accessible technology. The second tool identifies the three priority accessible technology standards that every city CIO and IT department should know about and be using. The third tool is a communications tool to help leaders in cities make the case for a stronger commitment to digital inclusion. The fourth and final tool is a database of smart city solutions that, if they were accessible, would have a great impact on people with disabilities.

 

James Thurston commented: “We are getting ready to begin piloting our fifth tool. This tool, a maturity model, will help smart cities to assess and benchmark their level of digital inclusion. We will very soon be announcing a first round of pilots with cities in the US and worldwide.”

 

Falling behind

 

Dr Victor Pineda feels that generally, cities are trying to change.

 

He said: “All over the world, we continue to hear the same thing: cities want to do more and need the tools and support to do it better. That’s why we developed the Smart Cities for All Toolkit, and have deployed it with leading smart cities around the world. The toolkit is now available in 10 languages. We are also very proud to have the backing of Microsoft, which was an early and strongly supportive partner.”

However, some of the findings from the global study made for sobering reading – most of the 250 smart city leaders surveyed admitted that their initiatives overlooked the needs of disabled people, while just 18 percent of experts knew of any smart cities using ICT standards for the purpose of inclusive accessibility. Given that the World Health Organisation World Report on Disability finds that around a billion people – 15 percent of the world’s population – lives with some form of disability, it’s worrying to think that those responsible for planning the future of our cities are neglecting the needs of such vast numbers of citizens.

 

"We know that many, if not most, smart city solutions today are not accessible for people with disabilities. That is an enormous problem."

 

Thurston concludes: “We know that many, if not most, smart city solutions today are not accessible for people with disabilities. That is an enormous problem. All citizens should be able to benefit from the exciting smart city programmes and technologies. We think that there is a real need today to infuse the innovation process and urban innovation ecosystems with a much stronger focus on inclusion. A smart city that achieves digital inclusion for citizens with disabilities and older citizens will work better for everyone.”

 

Open innovation

 

An example of a city working towards this is Melbourne in Australia. Almost one in five Australians experience some form of disability so in the first half of 2018, the City of Melbourne ran an open innovation competition aiming to make cities more accessible for people with a disability.

Companies were encouraged to incorporate data-driven and technology-enabled approaches into their submissions to address issues such as accessible parking, footpath navigation and wayfinding.

 

Winning solutions included: Melba, an app which pairs the City of Melbourne’s open data with smart assistants such as Siri, Google Assist and Amazon’s Alexa to provide up-to-date information via voice, text and screen readers; ClearPath, a turn-by-turn navigation system to assist the blind or vision-impaired to navigate unfamiliar places including permit events, construction sites, tactile ground surfaces and locations with heavy pedestrian traffic; and Eatability, a rating system which provides guidelines for the food and beverage industry, showcasing a business’s accessibility rating for four disability groups: mobility, auditory, visual and cognitive.

Councillor Beverley Pinder, chair of the People City portfolio, said: “As Melbourne continues to grow at a rapid pace it’s vital we continue to re-think and re-work how our cities are structured to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to experience Melbourne and everything it has to offer.”

Use what you’ve got


In 2016, the Smart Cities Council launched its Compassionate Cities campaign, with a focus on harnessing the same transformative technology that improves infrastructure and modernises public transport, and using it to improve the quality of life for all citizens.

 

Rolling out the campaign, Philip Bane, managing director at Smart Cities Council, highlighted one of the key, and often misinterpreted, factors of smart city projects and inclusivity: “This is not about a slew of new technologies cities have to budget for; it’s about applying existing smart technologies – from data analytics to social media – to improve living standards for all citizens."

 

For example, a pilot scheme in New York City analysed already-available data in order to prevent families from becoming homeless, showing that smart city technology can help the vulnerable even before situations worsen, not just eliminating a huge amount of pain and suffering but reducing the strain on finances and resources that health and social care systems face.

 

This is a particularly useful approach when it comes to the elderly. Combating loneliness is one of the primary opportunities for smart use of data and technology. According to Age UK, loneliness can be as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and as many as 1.9 million older people in the UK often feel ignored or invisible. With an ageing population globally, this problem is likely to be exacerbated, so it makes sense to look at taking preventative measures.

Through the Civic Innovation Challenge, fourteen tech start-ups were shortlisted in a competition to come up with innovative solutions to some of London’s most pressing social and environmental problems including housing, dementia and isolation.

 

This is something the City of London, for example, is looking at. Through the Civic Innovation Challenge, fourteen tech start-ups were shortlisted in a competition to come up with innovative solutions to some of London’s most pressing social and environmental problems including housing, dementia and isolation.

Smart navigation

 

Navigation is also a key area of innovation. Living Map, the research division of urban design consultancy Applied Wayfinding, uses technology to present solutions for the visually impaired. For example, the Virtual Warsaw pilot scheme in Poland has seen the city position a thousands-strong network of Bluetooth beacon sensors to help visually impaired and blind citizens navigate the city using smartphones.

Another example of innovation in accessible maps comes from San Francisco’s Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, in partnership with organisation for the blind LightHouse, creating maps for the visually impaired in all BART transit stations. Using a LiveScribe smart pen, users can tap on the tactile map to hear details such as fare pricing or platform information – an otherwise very difficult journey to make is instantly an option.


Dr Pineda of Smart Cities 4 All also highlights an innovation that can revolutionise the lives of visually impaired citizens, Seeing AI.


“Seeing AI is an app that reads or describes any picture or image taken by a cellphone,” Pineda explained. “It was designed to help people with visual impairments make better sense of a visual world, and it is being tested in work and school settings. Inclusive technologies bring new opportunities and have the potential to transform our cities.”

Home comfort


For vulnerable citizens, smart technology in the home that works in tandem with the IoT initiatives in cities can deliver even better results.

 

Perform Green is a strategy consultancy focused on using technology to drive positive change and deliver a ‘smart society’. Barney Smith, Perform Green’s Founder and CEO, commented: “By taking advantage of high-speed, high bandwidth, ‘always on’ connectivity, homes can be equipped with remote monitoring, sensing and control technologies and assistive robotic devices that could help to support elderly and disabled citizens in their own home.”

He added: “Using machine learning techniques for predictive analytics and automatic identification of critical situations, and fully immersive virtual reality/augmented reality video, real-time online consultations with health and social care professionals can take place."

 

Smith also stresses that enhancing the lives of the vulnerable and disabled isn’t just benefiting them, but society as a whole: “These same technologies could be used to enable elderly and disabled citizens to participate more fully in society, connecting them with workplaces, social circles and municipal authorities, whilst reducing costs of delivery in tight financial circumstances.”

 

“Elderly and disabled citizens could benefit from much more timely and efficient support services becoming available to them, providing earlier intervention (when needed), reducing the need for unnecessary hospital/GP visits and improving remote access to work and social opportunities. New solutions can enable people to remain in their own homes, improving quality of life and independence for longer,” he added.

 

Making the change

 

Clearly there are some trailblazing initiatives leading the way, but it’s also apparent that more needs to be done.

 

Knowledge-sharing is key, and an area in which many smart cities are already strong, disseminating findings and publicising ideas so that other cities across the world can explore new areas that might be beneficial to their citizens.

 

This can be further supported by challenging attitudes around cost and implementation – meeting the needs of all societal groups doesn’t have to be a costly or time-consuming exercise.

 

If we can start larger conversations that mean new initiatives are questioned on their inclusivity, the cities of the future are more likely to work for everyone.

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