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.
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.
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