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'Without a human-first approach, smart cities will create barriers'

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At Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, we have over 85 years of experience dealing with the issues and barriers faced by people with sight loss in remaining independent and accessing the world. 

However, there is no point in giving people a guide dog or a mobility aid of any nature if they can’t then get out into the environment to use it.

Much of our work centres around breaking down barriers: ensuring guide dogs have unhindered access; that parking on pavements, A-boards and physical barriers for pedestrians, are removed; or at that at least the knock-on experiential consequences on people with sight loss are understood. Many of these sorts of issues are also just as familiar to people with other disabilities.

‘Shared spaces’, ie those areas where eye-contact between a driver and a pedestrian is used by both parties to understand whether or not a pedestrian is safe to cross in an area that is used by both, are problematic. Of course, this approach to navigating shared space is not accessible to someone who has sight loss; it is equally useless to a small child or to somebody in a wheelchair who physically can’t make direct eye contact with somebody who is not at their eye-level, or someone who has problems with cognition.

With technology becoming ever more prevalent throughout society, the threat of virtual barriers is added to that of these physical obstacles.

Yet both also present potential opportunities.

In some instances, physical infrastructure could well be replaced with a virtual infrastructure. A customer service solution operating in a train station, for example, may use an audio technology solution that somebody can listen to, to enable them to navigate around their environment. This can be a huge advantage to somebody who has sight loss, however solutions which rely on touch screens or a physical interface can pose further barriers to a range of users and therefore it is key to think about these wider issues at the heart of a project’s conception.

The challenge arises when you don’t start with the human aspect - when instead you start by creating a solution, without understanding the problem you are trying to overcome or the people who are actually going to be using that solution.

At Guide Dogs, we’ve worked on a number of projects with organisations to do just this. An idea supported by Future Cities Catapult and developed by Microsoft and Guide Dogs, resulted in the creation of the Soundscape app, which is currently available on iOS and uses 3D audio-spatial sound to give people information about their environment and how to navigate it.

We developed the technology thinking ‘how can we design this for people with sight loss’, but the app itself is not only being used for that; it’s also a brilliant way to navigate yourself around a new environment if you’re a tourist, or potentially if you’re in a place where you don’t speak the language.

However, with so much focus on the development of ‘smart cities’, there is also a potential threat of too many solutions for one problem if we don’t consider the bigger picture.

There’s a real need for cities, local authority areas, retail and travel and transport organisations, technology companies and cross-sector environments to start thinking about a holistic approach to their city or area, to try to ensure that journeys are as seamless as they possibly can be. Otherwise, there is a real risk of creating a situation where people are socially excluded, when there is actually a real opportunity to increase inclusivity.

A lot of the work that we’ve been focusing on at Guide Dogs is considering the implications of this. What do these solutions mean for the area you’re curating? Are you, within your wider community, creating a nice, harmonious, inclusive area that everyone wants to and, more importantly, can go to, or are you actually creating a kind of technology gun fight, which it is problematic for people to make their way through because there is too much competing and overlapping information that creates even more barriers to both physical and virtual environments?

We are on the cusp of a huge revolution with immense possibilities in creating a wonderful, inclusive environment for everybody. Technology can be a great catalyst for this, but we have to start with a human-first approach. If we choose to take the easy route, and just seize on simple solutions, without considering the wider consequences, we end up creating even greater barriers for people in the future.

The number of people with sight loss is set to double from 2 million to 4 million by 2050 and the prevalence of sight loss increases with age. With most of us expected to live longer and with greater likelihood of developing sight loss, we are responsible for creating now the society we will all be going to grow older in and I, for one, would like to work towards one that will be for the benefit of us all. 

Kirsty Kelley, smart cities innovation manager, Guide Dogs for the Blind Association

Kirsty will be speaking at Cityx – the Future Cities Catapult Expo, from 25-27 September 2018. Find out more and register here: https://cityxpo.org.uk/

This article was produced in association with Future Cities Catapult

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