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Future Cities Need Technology That Understands All Humans

Cities need to be accessible to all, including those with hearing and sight impairments, and restricted mobility.

Ben Sullivan

Ben Sullivan

Image: AL Eyad

The world’s cities and their populations are growing at an unprecedented rate. The United Nations predicts that by 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population will live in urbanized areas, compared to just a third in 1950. As these cities sprawl upwards and outwards—becoming smarter and hyper-connected—it’s more important than ever to ensure that they are inclusive and accessible for all citizens.

Mobility is essential for that inclusivity. Cities can be daunting places to navigate for anyone, but can be near-impossible for those with hearing or sight impairments, as well as citizens with restricted mobility. But with the development of so-called “smart cities”—urban zones teeming with internet-connected sensors and artificial intelligence—technological breakthroughs spearheaded by Silicon Valley giants and citizen-first organizations can enable city planners to deploy mobility projects powered by technology that understand how to help all humans.

In Toronto, the CNIB, a Canadian nonprofit for the blind, is installing hundreds of small, battery-powered beacons across cafes, businesses, and stores to boost accessibility and mobility for those with visual impairments. The beacons, transmitting a small radio signal, will communicate with users smartphones via an iPhone app called BlindSquare, enabling users to access information on their location with audio cues. BlindSquare already uses GPS from mobile devices to aid the visually impaired in outdoors locations using tools like OpenStreetMap, but the new beacons will now give users the same experience indoors. The rollout is just the beginning for CNIB, which envisions the beacons revolutionizing public spaces for people with visual impairments.

Connected beacons, powered by advancements in the Internet of Things, could also make urban areas for accessible for people with hearing impairments who wouldn’t otherwise be aware of announcements, with users’ indoor locations triggering visual alerts on mobile devices. For Casar Jacobson, a deaf Canadian medical student and UN disability rights campaigner, projects like this could be life-changing.

“I may miss a flight because I don't hear the intercom announce over the PA, and maybe it didn't announce on the airline app either,” she told Moveable.

“Sometimes it's touch and go, and sometimes it's the cities you least expect to be inaccessible, for example Vancouver,” she said, speaking of her experiences of accessibility in urban areas.

But while some organizations like CNIB are focusing on the micro changes in everyday life that can help those with disabilities, others are envisioning entire shifts in infrastructure for the future of mobility. Google now employs the gargantuan amounts of personal data it stockpiles on its customers and citizens—data extracted from search histories, smartphones, and other products like Google Maps—in developing artificial intelligence technologies that will transform inclusivity and mobility for urban residents.

In Canada, Google’s parent company Alphabet is forging ahead with its own vision of urban planning. Sidewalk Labs, based out of Toronto, is testing urban design initiatives with cutting edge technology “to achieve new standards of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity”.

Alphabet acquired 800 acres of land in Waterfront Toronto earlier this year to act as a testbes for it urban redesigns, and is now rolling ahead with multiple projects for transforming urban spaces with self-driving technology, digital navigation tools, and transportation infrastructure built around prioritizing all modes of transport—not just cars and buses.

One of Sidewalk’s projects, dubbed Sense, is working to make traffic intersections in cities both safer and easier to navigate for pedestrians and drivers alike. Using adaptive traffic management systems that thrive of the massive amounts of data Google collects, Sense could become a digital traffic officer, deploying tech-enabled signals to give the elderly or mobility-impaired citizens longer to cross the street when traffic is busy, and reducing speed limits when pedestrian traffic may be at its highest, like during the school run or at lunchtime. Using new technologies, companies like Alphabet are employing data that city planners simply didn’t have access to when urban areas were first designed.

Google was already behind one of the most major urban transportation shifts of the 21st century, developing the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) back in 2006. Pulling in data from thousands of transport authorities, we now take GTFS for granted every time we open Google Maps to plan a public transport journey. But the company envisions massive leaps forward for urban public transport in the future, taking advantage of even more data generated by and collected from residents to enable transit technology to formulate almost any desired route for anyone using a plethora of options including buses, bikes, and even autonomous vehicles, for anyone—no matter their mobility requirement. “The mix of potential transit choices is exciting for city residents. Even more exciting are the endless mobility possibilities that will arise from the combination of data-driven tools and self-driving vehicles,” said Sidewalk Labs.

While there are legitimate concerns about the power and data companies such as Alphabet will soon wield in urban planning—so much so that Sidewalk Labs has suffered considerable backlash in Toronto—there’s no doubt incredible avenues of opportunity for building inclusivity with its technologies. It just mustn’t cost us our most basic privacy rights.

Future cities need cutting-edge technology to create inclusive infrastructure for all on an individual and community level. As artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and smart cities as a whole get smarter, mobility providers are poised for the first time in history to deploy technology that understands all humans.