Cities are becoming smarter than ever before, with a plethora of start-ups looking towards digital transformation and how we interact with city spaces in our everyday lives. The rise of the smart city, however, poses a new and potential difficulties for governments globally: as more services move online, and the nature of those services becomes increasingly complex, they risk becoming inaccessible to large groups of the population.
New Markets, New Opportunities
Digital product studios are working to solve this problem, and make cities smarter for those with disabilities. Not only are we focused on making existing technologies accessible, working to develop solutions to improve city life, specifically for those with additional needs has become an important factor that we consider when developing products for our clients. In making cities more accessible, local businesses and attractions also benefit, given that the consumer spending power of disabled people and their families is around £249bn in the UK.
In the ‘Accessibility Tech’ market, we at Borne found three broad categories of start-ups that are working to make cities more accessible for all their inhabitants: First, there are start-ups that make smart cities and their integrated technologies more accessible. Second, there is a collection of businesses that make using transport and navigating around the city easier for those with disabilities. Finally, there is a category of start-ups that are focused on making visits to shops and venues a better experience for those with accessibility needs.
Putting the ‘Access’ Back into Accessibility
Touch screens are used in a range of smart city solutions – from citizen engagement apps, to ticket kiosks to displays providing data collected by smart sensors. However, the information displayed on touch screens is not always accessible to those with visual or physical impairments. German start-up Speech Code and Spanish-based Mouse4all are examples of changes that are possible to be more inclusive in digital product development.
Speech Code makes touch screens accessible for those with visual impairments by providing technology that generates a QR-like code that holds the entire content on a given display. Once scanned with the free SpeechCode App, it presents the content – without Internet access – as text and/or in audio format. Mouse4All provides an app that allows those who cannot the screen by touching it with their hands to command the screen with an alternative input interface suited to one’s physical abilities, such as an adapted mouse, a trackball or joystick.
Buttons, which are also increasingly used on digital kiosks and sensors around the city, pose a problem for those with visual or physical impairments. The Button app, developed by startup Neatebox, helps overcome this challenge by allowing users to press buttons, like those at pedestrian crossings, by using their smartphone.
Navigation and Transport
While apps like Google Maps, TripAdvisor and Citymapper have made planning journeys around the city much easier, these platforms are often not as useful for those with additional needs. The standard navigation apps often do not include information about accessibility or when they do it is incomplete or unreliable. When reliable accessibility information is included, it is often in the form of labels like ‘accessible or ‘inaccessible’, which
Apps like SociAbilitiy and AccessAble are aiming to provide an alternative to TripAdvisor and Yelp that do include detailed and reliable accessibility information about shops, restaurants, museums and other venues across cities in the UK and the US. Meanwhile, CityMaas helps those with disabilities plan their travel to these venues by generating travel routes that include a range of accessible transport modes. If assistance is needed at any or all stages of the journey, the CityMaaS Assist will even help arrange that. Booking is taken care of in-app, and it covers everything from bike hire to the subway.
French startup Wheeliz is aiming to increase the amount of affordable accessible transport available by providing an Uber-style peer-to-peer user adapted car rentals service. Created in 2015, the website offers individual owners of an adapted car the possibility of renting it directly to a wheelchair user who needs it. Finally, UK startup Wayfindr allows vision impaired individuals to navigate through transport hubs independently by providing auditory navigation cues. The cues are generated from bluetooth beacons placed in the stations which connect to the user’s phone and allow the user to receive the cues via the app.
Shopping and Venue Accessibility
Even when businesses or restaurants can be reached by accessible transport, visiting these venues once lockdown has eased can still pose challenges to those with additional needs. Often, visitors with accessibility requirements receive inadequate customer service due to lack of disability awareness and confidence of staff members.
The Welcome app was to tackle this problem. Businesses can use the app to inform customers of their accessibility features, and users with disabilities can notify venues of their requirements before arrival. When a customer with additional needs notifies the venue of her intention to visit, staff receives information about their specific needs so that they can provide appropriate support once they arrive. Handiscover provides a similar solution for travel accommodation. Through the platform, consumers can search for and book travel accommodation based on various accessibility needs and communicate their needs with the provider before booking their trip.
Politicians are Listening
Multiple local UK governments and cities have explored how they can develop assistive technologies for local services over the past six months. Notably, in September 2019, The East London Inclusive Enterprise Zone, which is a £1.2 million (€1.4 million) project aimed at incubating and accelerating accessible innovation enterprises, was launched as the result of a collaboration between the Greater London Authority, Hackney Council, several London universities and non-profit organisations. More recently, there have been similar moves in specific sectors, from healthcare to education. Northamptonshire County Council is currently tendering for enterprises to be part of an assistive technology framework aimed at technologies that support independent living at home.
One start-up that stands out for its collaboration with the UK government is Wayfindr. The navigation system for the vision impaired was awarded funding through the Transport Technology Research Innovation Grant and was given permission to trial its navigation tool on the London Underground at Euston and Pimlico station. These trials have been a success and the start-up has been starting to roll out its technology in the US, while also implementing further trials to see how its technology can be used in different settings like hospitals and airports.
No two disabilities are alike, and yet every person on the planet will eventually be disabled. How do you design a product for that problem? How do you anticipate those needs? It’s questions like this that should get everyone who cares about product development excited. Because they hint at what accessibility really is: a futuristic universe of design as diverse and multifaceted as humanity itself. Designing with empathy for fringe-use scenarios, as accessibility is sometimes described, isn’t just “the right thing to do” as a design studio. It’s the future of development and we should embrace that.