Disability in Smart Cities: Assessing assistive technologies and urban accessibility

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While assistive technologies have proliferated, researchers and developers have yet to develop sufficient standards for assessing these technologies and their socio-urban implications. This article reviews uni-disciplinary attempts made thus far and provides four interdisciplinary principles for moving forward. The principles are: (1) The Principle of Disabled-Centred Technological Development (2) The Principle of Disabled Diversity (3) The Principle of Expanding Disabled Independence and (4) The Principle of Mixed-methods Discourse.

Note: This piece was adapted from a dissertation for the Architectural and Interdisciplinary Studies program at University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture.


GPS and other technologies have dramatically transformed contemporary urban experiences. With such technologies in the palm of our hand, trial-and-error travels are rare, and ‘trust-your-instincts’ wanders are even rarer. At unknown destinations, we turn to a suite of travel apps and accept the quickest or shortest possible routes readily available to us. Yet, there still are occasions where we struggle to find convenient routes and draw upon others’ help.

For disabled people, the stakes are much higher. They heavily rely on the availability of human and technological assistance to decide on the feasibility of their travel. While various technologies demonstrate the potential to offer urban accessibility to the disabled, such potential has yet to be fully realised.

Despite growth in assistive technologies, parallel development in standards to assess their effectiveness and socio-urban implications has not taken place. This is likely due to a lack of academic and commercial attention to assistive technologies. In an attempt to fill this gap, I propose four principles for evaluating assistive technologies.

Before presenting these principles, I first demonstrate the hitherto limited and fragmented attempts at studying (assistive) technologies in three different academic fields: architecture, computer science and engineering, and social sciences.

 Architecture

 In Architecture, disability studies and technology have often been dealt with separately, mostly under the theme of accessible/universal design (see Bloomer and Moore, 1997; Boys, 2014; Goldsmith, 2000; Hall and Imrie, 2001) and digital architecture/urbanism (see Carpo, 2017; Lynn, 1998, Mitchell, 1996). Recently, architects and architectural historians have turned to the sociological concept of care (see Mol et al., 2010; Schillmeier and Domènech, 2010; Till, 2012), as a potential area where human frailty and its supporting technologies can be simultaneously studied within architecture. Yet, the research is in its embryonic stages and much focus is on designing “care-full” architecture, often belittling the experiences of users as those of the technologically unknowledgeable (Boys, 2017). In assessing assistive technologies, this institutional perspective is problematic. Disabled users often require specific needs of which so-called superior design experts and theorists are unaware.

Computer Science and Engineering

In Computer Science and Engineering, discussions on the potential for assistive technologies to enhance mobility of the disabled (see Chib and Jiang, 2014; Rashid et al., 2016) have been fruitful yet isolated, neglecting some social repercussions. Incorporating the emerging Internet of Things (IoT), researchers have experimented with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons and radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags to create accessible solutions (for examples, see Swobodzinski and Raubal, 2008; Chen et al., 2015). At present, the signalling between BLE/RFID and their corresponding readers are unstable and thus limited to a circumscribed, often indoor, environment. But in the ‘smart’ future, when 5G-based wireless broadband network and computerised sensors replace the BLE/RFID systems, almost everything from large-scale infrastructure (like street and traffic lights) to domestic appliances (such as remote-controlled fridges and heating systems) will be connected to some part of the IoT (Wainwright, 2014).

Many proponents of the ‘smart city’ argue that ubiquitous signal detection and transmission will bring about efficiency, allegedly a panacea to contemporary urban ills. However, such rhetoric is precarious and prone to perplexing questions. One of these is: in assessing the successfulness of assistive technology, is efficiency the ultimate goal? Or is the ultimate goal utility? If the former, can we define disabled efficiency?

 Social Sciences and Urban Studies

On the contrary, social science researchers (Amin, 2012; Coutard and Guy, 2007; Graham and Marvin, 2001) and urban practitioners (Dixon, 2013; Rogers, Capra and Schöening, 2013; Vaughan, 2013) have remained unduly conservative and censorious of technological development and resulting techno-philic enthusiasm. The work of Amin (2012), for instance, questions the role of technology, together with material infrastructure, in forming healthy interpersonal relations and a new ‘politics of togetherness’ in urban settings. He argues that such politics are often absent in urban life today, and technology creates alienation and oppression, which are opposite of the desired effects.

In other words, although researchers in architecture, computer science and engineering, and social sciences are interconnected in their attention to the concept of assistive technologies, they are carrying out their research in unproductive isolation.

Similarly, Vaughan (2013) raises concerns over virtual connectivity and formation of specialised groups which hinder urban co-existence and integration. Coutard and Guy (2007) explain this through surveillance technologies, such as CCTVs that create information and power asymmetry. Graham and Davis’ Splintering Urbanism (2001) furthers this view by linking the mis-management and monopolisation of technology to urban fragmentation. The book points to the harmfulness of technological advances, including their potential to intensify socioeconomic imbalances. These views are equally contentious, as they generalise the mechanism of technologies and overlook specialised technological tools.

Altogether, there lacks a holistic and impartial review of technologies – assistive ones in particular –across disciplines. In other words, although researchers in architecture, computer science and engineering, and social sciences are interconnected in their attention to the concept of assistive technologies, they are carrying out their research in unproductive isolation.

It is vital that assistive technologies be evaluated under an ‘umbrella’ methodology that includes different theoretical and technical understandings. Below, I propose four principles which constitute a framework for evaluating issues specific to current and future assistive technologies.

With the advance of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, new types of assistive technologies will appear. Novel human-technology interaction methods, such as speech or haptic systems and motion sensors will facilitate technology’s social inclusion. But while this development inspires more inclusive and egalitarian forms of urban collectiveness, the personalisation of such interactive options and the handling of personal data must be questioned. Policy makers, designers, and developers can use the four principles I discuss to move discussions forward and optimize their efforts to facilitate accessibility for the disabled.

(1)   The Principle of Disabled-Centred Technological Development 

The fundamental necessities of disabled-centred technology are to enhance disabled people’s capabilities and to remove restrictions and injustice related to their use of technology. These fundamental necessities reject the idea that technologies are intrinsically or universally valuable, as well as the notion that usability is a quality that exists in any absolute sense. In other words, the usability of any technological tool or system must be viewed in terms of the context in which it is used and its appropriateness to that context (Brooke, 1996).

 As a result, we should applaud context-aware assistive technology that makes effective use of accessible and widespread tools. An accessible and well-established platform with which to implement technology maximises the potential reach of technologies and permits developers a guaranteed platform for their solutions. Smartphones, particularly iPhones, are one of the items that are frequently owned and used by many disabled people. The smartphone platform can offer wayfinding technology to a wide audience in the form of competitive smartphone-based applications.

iPhone Accessibility: accessible and personal.  (Source: Apple  iPhone and iPad Accessibility Support )

iPhone Accessibility: accessible and personal. (Source: Apple iPhone and iPad Accessibility Support)

Since its first release in 2007, the iPhone has been playing a key role in disabled users’ lives. iPhone accessibility support features include ‘VoiceOver’ (a gesture-based screen reader), Braille displays, font adjustment, iPhone-specific sound processors, visible/vibrating alerts, ‘Type to Siri’ and closed captions (for hearing loss), and ‘Switch Control’ and ‘AssistiveTouch’ (for physical motor limitations).  (Source: Apple  iPhone and iPad Accessibility Support )

Since its first release in 2007, the iPhone has been playing a key role in disabled users’ lives. iPhone accessibility support features include ‘VoiceOver’ (a gesture-based screen reader), Braille displays, font adjustment, iPhone-specific sound processors, visible/vibrating alerts, ‘Type to Siri’ and closed captions (for hearing loss), and ‘Switch Control’ and ‘AssistiveTouch’ (for physical motor limitations). (Source: Apple iPhone and iPad Accessibility Support)

(2)   The Principle of Disabled Diversity

As a consequence of the contextual nature of technology, it is very difficult to compare and measure usability across different types of assistive technology. One should avoid comparing the usability of different technologies intended for different purposes wherever possible. It may also be misleading to generalise design features and experience across technological systems. For example, the fact that a particular design feature has proven useful in one system does not necessarily mean that it will be useful in another system with a different group of users doing different tasks in different environments. Technologies must be developed on the basis that people are endowed with various physical and mental characteristics and live in diverse environments under varied socio-economic conditions. All of these factors affect the opportunities a person can realistically enjoy from the adoption of a particular piece of technology.

Le Modulor  by Le Corbusier (1945).  ( Source )

Le Modulor by Le Corbusier (1945). (Source)

Modulor  by Carpentier (2011).  ( Source )   Le Corbusier invented Le Modulor in an attempt to create an anthropometric scale that is universally applicable to architecture. The Modulor man is based on a healthy male figure – ignoring the relevance of child, female, disabled or any other ‘non-standard’ bodies. In stark contrast to this ‘arbitrary’ representation, Thomas Carpentier’s men thoroughly defy the last century’s modernist ideals: “the body is not standard,” he writes. “It is sometimes tall, sometimes small, fat, thin, wizened, deformed, twisted, scalped... Such a variety of feelings [are what] the norm cannot and do not want to report” (2016).

Modulor by Carpentier (2011). (Source)

Le Corbusier invented Le Modulor in an attempt to create an anthropometric scale that is universally applicable to architecture. The Modulor man is based on a healthy male figure – ignoring the relevance of child, female, disabled or any other ‘non-standard’ bodies. In stark contrast to this ‘arbitrary’ representation, Thomas Carpentier’s men thoroughly defy the last century’s modernist ideals: “the body is not standard,” he writes. “It is sometimes tall, sometimes small, fat, thin, wizened, deformed, twisted, scalped... Such a variety of feelings [are what] the norm cannot and do not want to report” (2016).

(3)   The Principle of Expanding Disabled Independence

 If there is an area in which it is possible to assess usability in a way that can bear cross-system comparison, it is in subjective assessments of independence. While different assistive technologies serve different groups of disabled users, their universal aim is to increase disabled independence. The ends of technology are to address disabled people’s lack of freedom by enabling them to travel on their own and carry out their daily activities without anyone’s help. Yet part of the environment into which technology enters is the social environment, which includes the ways in which disabled people are perceived by the society. In order to facilitate independence, one must carefully consider these social norms and continuously adapt the technologies to them.

In measuring disabled independence, it is therefore also crucial to observe whether technology is resistant to reification. Reification refers to the act of perceiving technology as merely material artefact with inscribed, unequivocal characteristics, independent from social practices. Technology has the flexibility to incorporate a wide range of hegemonic functions and shape the political agenda. However, unless technology is lucrative and mainstream, technology developers hold little influence over policymaking. As such, developers must be adaptive, context-aware, and proactive. When assessing a disabled-centred technology, its context-awareness and flexibility should be incorporated and valued, in addition to its direct impact on enabling independence.

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Losing Myself, Venice Biennale Architecttura 2016.  (Source:  Níall McLaughlin Architects )   Niall Mclaughlin and Yeoryia Manolopoulou’s ‘Losing Myself’ is an exemplary work that raises questions on disabling architecture and disabled independence. The architects’ drawings depict the experiences of people suffering from dementia at Alzheimer’s Respite Centre. In such care homes, patients are restricted from fully engaging with their built environment.

Losing Myself, Venice Biennale Architecttura 2016. (Source: Níall McLaughlin Architects)

Niall Mclaughlin and Yeoryia Manolopoulou’s ‘Losing Myself’ is an exemplary work that raises questions on disabling architecture and disabled independence. The architects’ drawings depict the experiences of people suffering from dementia at Alzheimer’s Respite Centre. In such care homes, patients are restricted from fully engaging with their built environment.

(4)   The Principle of Mixed-methods Discourse

 Developers and researchers must measure the extent to which technology expands independence both quantitatively and qualitatively. To address critical socio-urban problems, such as accessibility for disabled people, either quantitative or qualitative data alone is insufficient. These problems are far “more dynamic and complex because of the number of stakeholders involved and the numerous feedback loops among inter-related [disciplines]” (Desouza and Smith, 2014). Especially when the problems are associated with social minorities, perspectives are often disregarded, hindering well-informed decision-making.

Mixed methods approaches are therefore imperative for achieving socio-urban innovation. Similarly, user-inclusive research approaches should be encouraged. In addition to researchers’ well-thought-out designs and hypotheses, the direct opinions of disabled population are equally important to shaping the course of emerging assistive technologies.


Sharon Chang is an MSc student in Social Data Science at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII). Her research interests include the development of smart cities, the Internet of Things (IoT), and ideas for improving disabled accessibility through data-driven, human-centred approaches. Before joining the OII, she studied at UCL Bartlett School of Architecture. 

 

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Sharon ChangComment