What do we mean by accessible smart cities?

In a previous blog post, Ramya talked about India’s smart cities mission. In this blog post, I’d like to talk about smart cities in general, what it means accessibility-wise, and then relate to it from an Indian perspective.

Smart cities have been hard to define, and often have had a very nebulous definition. However, looking at many smart city initiatives around the world, my own definition of it is the following:

Smart cities are cities which employ clever use of technology to improve urban living.

This is not a new concept, as such. Throughout human history, we’ve been trying to use technology in clever ways to improve living conditions. Right from the first recorded drainage systems and communal baths of the Indus valley civilization, to the underground sewage tunnels of Paris, to the first electric power plants in Manhattan to the first underground metro system in London – all these were cutting edge solutions to aspects of modern living at the time, that we now take for granted.

Network infrastructure

Notice that the examples I mentioned above are all network infrastructure of some kind. So, what does the future of urban living look like? To see that, we need to see what modern technology is moving towards, and what trends are gaining traction in the technology industry. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) today are at the heart of many cutting edge solutions. It’s pretty clear that the future urban experience will be shaped by ICT in a major way. The backbone of all this is a strong and robust information network infrastructure.

It’s a bit difficult to have great online communication and information sharing on slow-speed networks using copper lines. Investing in fiber is crucial in this regard. Things like video conferencing, distance learning, tele-medicine and more will depend on fast internet connections. Stockholm for example, gained billions when they invested in a strong fiber rollout. Mobile phone usage has exploded in India and whatever technology trend gains foothold in the future, it would need to be mobile friendly. So investing in a strong mobile internet rollout (towers supporting LTE) would also be crucial.

So before we even talk about accessible smart cities, its important to take note of the underlying infrastructure which is needed to make such a thing possible in the first place.

Transport

There are a lot of interesting things happening in the area of public transport and related infrastructure. Montreal, for example, is using machine learning and computer vision to detect potholes so that they could be fixed faster. From an accessibility perspective, there are some great things many cities are doing with introducing kneeling buses (or low-floor buses) with extendable ramps for wheelchair users.

There are already solutions in place where at bus stops, you can see the next few buses coming around and their approximate time to reach you on an electronic display. For a wheelchair user, it might make sense to have an indication of which of those are kneeling buses with wheelchair support, so that they have a better idea of which bus to board. Cities like Portland, Oregon provide a service called LIFT, which is a shared ride public transport service for people with disabilities. Chicago has added 50 wheelchair accessible taxis to it’s fleet and plans to have 10 percent of it’s fleet as wheelchair accessible.

Most metro systems around the world have decent support for wheelchair users, however, one of the main areas to note is to have enough width in the metro turnstiles for wheelchairs to pass through. If we go beyond metro systems and look at buildings, park entrances etc, then we find the situation a bit more alarming. There are apps coming up like Jaccede which provide great info to users on the wheelchair accessibility level of a particular place the city on a person’s mobile phone.

When it comes to flights, there is a growing trend of ‘silent airports’, which means information is not conveyed on the airport loudspeaker system unless very important. For people with mobility issues who find it difficult to always go in front of the airport screen to check their boarding time and gates, or simply for people are blind or low-vision, this is not a great situation. Making an accessible app (which enables use of text-to-speech options) to make sure such information is provided on demand as well as using push notifications and vibration could help with this a lot, especially when it comes to random and sudden gate changes.

Tele-Medicine

Singapore has been doing a lot of great work in tele-medicine. They have a program to have regular conference calls with older patients, who are assigned a ‘tele-nurse’ by their hospital or clinic. The patients are also given a set of equipment which they could use on their own, and it tracks and reports on their vital signs and other metrics. Physiotherapy lessons are also often done through a video call with their movements captured by motion sensors. There are also programs to conduct remote consultation of dermatology related diseases to treat skins conditions, especially in cases of follow-up appointments. All this lessens the need for patients to physically travel to their hospital or clinic, unless it is something serious. This reduced need for travel is a boon for people with reduced physical mobility.

This can be great for India as well, and can transform healthcare in India – especially in semi-urban and even rural areas where the nearest doctor could be very far from their home. Having a sign-language interpreter for people with hearing difficulties could also be good, especially for people not comfortable reading or typing properly. Tele-health can also be instrumental in early detection of certain disabilities and other conditions. Having medical advice (even if its for relatively trivial things) readily available to people could mean a huge difference, especially for new mothers and newborns in the hinterlands of rural India (who often do not have ready access to doctors and have to rely on hearsay), thereby improving not just urban living but rural as well.

Utilities

Till now utilities have pretty much been a billing-only relationship. Once you have a utility installed in your home, the only time you interact with the utility provider is when you want to pay a bill (or in the rare cases of it going down and you needing support).

With smart cities, people are also looking at the concept of smart homes. This is where IoT comes in, and having your devices and underlying services available to you via an application come in. Besides providing data on how much money each of your appliances are consuming, imagine a person with mobility or vision issues remote querying the status of his appliances without needing to get up or controlling them using an accessible web or mobile app. There are already some moves in this space, with IoT enabled light bulbs in particular being a segment where activity is heating up.

The future

The future of smart cities is exciting. What we need to always keep in mind is to take everyone with us on this journey of the future. I would argue that a smart city which isn’t accessible for it’s most vulnerable citizens isn’t really smart. Work needs to be done on all levels (technology, standards, policy and awareness) to make sure people with disabilities are welcomed into this smart future. So wherever we are, let’s look at the smart city initiatives in our own cities, and see if they are inclusive and accessible or not.

If you’re a solution provider in this space and are thinking of how to make your offerings more inclusive and accessible, then contact us. I believe we can help 🙂