Smart city means building an inclusive society for all.

Nabil Eid

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Written by Eng. Nabil Eid.  Strategic Disability Inclusion ICT Accessibility consulting services & solutions Middle East and North Africa. 

Today, 54 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66 per cent by 2050. Projections show that urbanization combined with the overall growth of the world’s population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban populations by 2050, with close to 90 per cent of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa, according to The World Urbanization Prospects and United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs report.

And according to the International Labour Office  (ILO), it is smart to invest in improvement of accessibility in urban environments and services, if designed and built following accessibility or inclusive “Universal Design” principles from initial stages of planning and design, bear almost no or only 1 per cent additional cost. It is a great deal more expensive rebuilding, renovating or redesigning existing inaccessible infrastructure or facility to make them more accessible and inclusive. The cost of not incorporating accessibility/universal design can also be significant. Taking into account the loss of human capital and opportunity cost incurred due to inaccessibility, economies stand to lose a great deal more when significant groups, such as persons with disabilities are excluded from participation.

Importantly, the New Urban Agenda needs to ensure that future cities, towns and basic urban infrastructures and services are more environmentally accessible, user-friendly and inclusive of all people’s needs.

In recent years, designers and developers have been encouraged to think more about movement within the city. Accessible design, usable and inclusive design, and universal design are all approaches to design that can result in products that are easier for everyone to use, including people with disabilities and older age.

Such concepts apply across the entirety of built environment, including not only buildings, transport infrastructure, public space and parks, but also to key products, services and facilities that help improve the experience of movement and connectivity. Consequently, opening up the city to all by improving the experience of movement for all urban residents will involve a wide array of different types of designers, each of whom will benefit from collaborating across disciplines and working with experts in a range of technologies or on designs that extend beyond their traditional spheres of interest.

In this context, there is a need to view accessibility as an investment in a public good that contributes to effective, sustainable and equitable development for all and not merely an issue of cost or compliance. This will involve fundamental reconsiderations of policies that address the objective of equalization of opportunities for persons with disabilities, as a target group, and to focus on measures that contribute to accessibility to the general systems for all.

With the expansion of smart meters, like the Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), using new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), such Internet of Things (IoT) applications, typical edge computing technologies (Including the mobile edge computing, loud computing), big data, and Artificial Intelligence (AI), drive unified coordination, cross-sector collaboration, and intelligent analysis for effective management of services in a smart city, each smart city will be equipped with various kinds of electronic devices. Therefore, equipment and technologies enable us to be smarter and make various aspects of smart cities more accessible and applicable. Open issues and future research directions are identified as well.

The key features of potential smart cities in 2020. Smart citizens, smart energy, smart buildings, smart mobility, smart technology, smart healthcare, smart infrastructure, smart governance and education and finally smart security are the aspects of smart cities.

There are six smart components (Smart connections, smart economy, smart people, smart government, smart environment, smart living) that support to build a smart city. No one component can stand on its own, but through concerted efforts and cooperation, success can be achieved and provide the strength necessary to embrace change successfully.

Inclusive Smart City

Smart City initiatives are getting more and more attention from the academies, industries and governments at a global scale. A wide range of sectors such as education, health, security, public safety, business, government administration, and civil society are taking advantage from the use of technology to reduce costs, bring agility to public services, achieve a more efficient management and obtain better quality of life. Yet, to be considered “smart”, a city must reinforce the participations of everyone recognizing the diversity of citizens, struggling against the segregation of minorities, and trying as much as it can to eliminate, not only physical but also digital, barriers. That is what we call Inclusive Smart City.  “Will the real smart city please stand up?

The Inclusive Smart City is a new citizen-centered approach that aims to extend the experience provided by Smart Cities solutions to all citizens, which means including persons with disabilities and aging population. When associated to Universal Design, Smart Cities can profoundly change the experience that PWDs have in the urban space, providing tools that guarantee independence and autonomy for people that constantly feel the city as chaotic and a source of plenty of difficult situations. Furthermore, if a Smart City Project is designed and implemented taking into account the needs of people with disabilities, it is most likely it will also meet the expectations of ordinary people.

Smart cities are inclusive and friendly

The smart city is becoming smarter than in the past as a result of the current expansion of digital technologies, with taking the heterogeneous environment into account, various terms, like characteristic of objects, participants, motivations and security policies.

Many of the challenges faced by the smart city concept is to ensure the engagement of all groups of citizens and to promote inclusivity. Smart city applications should be inclusive in terms of providing opportunities for all and ensuring that particular groups are neither left out of positive impacts nor disproportionately affected by any societal costs that may be imposed. For instance, the needs of vulnerable groups such as women, the elderly and persons with disabilities should be integrated into smart city strategies. The need to ensure inclusivity for such vulnerable groups is especially important because there is a significant possibility that they will lack the skills to use smart city applications or that their livelihoods may be the most affected by smart city applications. Promoting participatory governance in cities is a prerequisite for developing inclusive smart cities.

The key challenges under the Smart Cities initiative for disability sector can be highlighted as follows:

  • Lack of awareness regarding e-accessibility for persons with disabilities by the stakeholders.
  • Lack of data or guiding policies/principles on persons with disabilities.
  • Poor project execution leading to the failure to incorporate features for persons with disabilities.
  • Smart city proposals that lack accessibility features
  • No benchmarks for accessibility features like other services.

Smart cities to ensure inclusive development

Innovative technology applications can ensure that smart cities are inclusive and friendly, including towards the elderly (who often have limited mobility) and people with disabilities. Develop smart infrastructure and innovations can make life in a city easier and more enjoyable and city governments should therefore channel the efforts of local innovation systems to continuously formulating new smart city applications that ensure inclusive development.

Smart Cities can offer a better experience for PWDs to also gain a higher quality of life. The proposal is a two-fold approach:

  • Boosting well known assistive technology already installed in the city with IoT technology
  • Creating innovative interactive tools, such as wearable devices, which receive contextual information from the environment and, depending on the PWDs restrictions, can behave appropriately, using different interaction modalities.

The UN Economic and Social Council, Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) identified a set of key findings and suggestions for smart cities

The main findings are as follows:

  • The concept of a smart city is highly context specific. It is therefore important for national and city governments to work together with all relevant stakeholders to develop a common understanding of what a smart city entails in their specific national and local contexts.
  • Smart cities and infrastructure designs need to be people centered. They should respond to the needs and challenges of specific urban systems and recognize the potential of technology as an enabler and at the same time understand its limitations.
  • In designing smart cities and infrastructure, several key design principles need to be followed, namely inclusiveness, resilience, sustainability, interoperability, flexibility, risk mitigation and safety.
  • Governments have at their disposal a broad array of tools to develop smart cities, including inter alia output-based contracting, public–private partnerships, procurement policies, planning and development frameworks, social and entrepreneurial investment funds, research funds and the provision of support services. Such tools can enable Governments to actively shape markets and correct market failures related to smart infrastructure.
  • Smart infrastructure has the potential to promote inclusive development (including gender inclusiveness) in cities by helping to generate data on informal settlements and informal sectors and other marginalized groups in society (including women, the elderly and persons with disabilities). Such data can then be used to design infrastructure that specifically addresses the needs of such groups.

Indeed, some Smart City initiatives do not envisage PWD and their needs. There is still a lack of studies that carefully consider the impaired citizens in a Smart City Project. For this reason, the challenge of enabling cities with IoT components driven to accessibility can be seen as a great opportunity, since they can stimulate the advance of innovative research projects and market solutions.

The main feature of the Inclusive Smart City is the ability of identifying places and objects (or things) and making this information digitally available. Once this information is available, it can be sent to devices that receive the information and personalize this information according to the disability of the user.

Moving Forward: Accessible and inclusive approaches to Smart Cities

Internationally, there are initiatives being undertaken to develop guidelines such as the Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs  G3ict and World Enabled standards and tools for making Smart Cities inclusive for persons with disabilities. These tools should be adopted and implemented.
G3ict and World Enabled believe that now is the time to design a more inclusive and accessible approach to Smart Cities.

Initiative, Smart Cities for All, is key to help all of us continue to work on accessibility.

In collaboration with G3ict and World Enabled, with support from Microsoft, launched “Smart Cities for All Toolkit” to define the state of accessible technology in cities worldwide with a focus on closing the digital divide for persons with disabilities and older persons.

The toolkit aims to empower city leaders with resources that will lead to communities that are more inclusive. Resources include guides for implementing ICT accessibility standards and procurement policies, ideas for how to make the case for a stronger commitment to digital inclusion and a framework for a database of accessibility solutions.

ICT for Inclusive Urban Development: “Smart Cities for All Toolkit” are available in multiple languages.

Finally: Inclusive smart cities an important opportunity to advance three particular aspects of a just and sustainable world. Smart cities making investments in new infrastructure should focus on models that create economic benefits for all including persons with disabilities and older persons, inclusive smart cities also can advance essential rights, including decent work opportunities, an adequate standard of living, and opportunities to participate in cultural life.

It’s easy to talk of inclusive growth which benefits all people, but putting it into practice is easier said than done. “No one will be left behind”.

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