Greater digital access can improve the quality of life, particularly for the most vulnerable. Creating more inclusive digital communities is essential for reducing this digital divide - by not only bolstering affordability and public access, but also by increasing digital skills and awareness.
More than half of the global population is now using the internet. However, digital access and adoption have not been evenly distributed; according to the International Telecommunications Union, only 24.4% of Africa’s population was online as of 2018, even as Europe boasted a 79.6% internet penetration rate, while in the Americas penetration registered at 69.6% (more promising statistics show that growth during recent years in both mobile cellular subscriptions and mobile broadband subscriptions has been driven by countries in Asia and Africa).
Greater digital accessibility also presents an opportunity to better empower communities with more specific needs, like indigenous people, rural communities, people with disabilities (via assistive technologies like voice-recognition software), women and girls, and young people who have been historically disenfranchised.
By gaining access to increasing amounts of digital content, people can become better able to understand and navigate the digital systems increasingly relied upon to deliver services related to health care, education, employment, and civic participation.
Vulnerable communities like the exploding population of refugees and internally displaced people (as of June 2019, the UN Refugee Agency estimated there were nearly 26 million refugees worldwide, and more than 41 million internally displaced people) can particularly benefit from greater digital inclusion. Mobile phones are essential for refugees to coordinate travel and communicate with family; in 2016, Turkcell, a Turkish telecommunications company, launched its Hello Hope (“Merhaba Umut”) mobile app to help Syrian refugees in the country with basic language training and the provision of important basic information in Arabic and Turkish.
Greater digital inclusion can also improve public services and participation; for example, Maputo, Mozambique, which has a serious solid waste management problem and where a majority of residents live in informal settlements, has deployed a participatory monitoring platform (MOPA) and encouraged citizens to use it to report waste issues and to keep track of waste management services - in a bid to help improve service delivery.
Inclusive Education Design
When it comes to the internet, the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative seeks to ensure that sites are compatible with assistive technologies like voice-recognition software. Assistive technologies and online courses are making instruction more available and effective. Artificial intelligence, gamification, and accessibility technologies are also enabling more personalized and interactive instruction.
Truly inclusive learning involves curricula and experiences designed for a diverse array of abilities, learning styles, cultural backgrounds, and gender identities. Universal Design in Education is a practice that originated at the Center for Universal Design in the US, and is now being applied to everything from textbooks and websites to laboratory equipment; in terms of physical space, it can take the form of entrances that deploy sensors in order to be used with ease by both disabled and non-disabled students, for example.
Universal Design for Learning has also been instrumental for inclusive learning; this framework, promoted by the Center for Applied Special Technology, includes three basic principles: multiple means of presenting information, multiple means of motivating students, and multiple means for students to demonstrate that they are learning - ranging from a traditional essay to green screens and podcasts.
Both of these models can foster skills necessary not only for school, but also for post-graduation life. The terms “integration” and “inclusion” are often (confusingly) used interchangeably. When it comes to disabled people, specifically, “integration” refers to at least partial physical placement of disabled learners in mainstream schools and training programmes. Meanwhile “inclusion” involves the broader process of changing social norms, values, and attitudes, while addressing unconscious biases and stigma, and adapting policies and practices in schools and training centres accordingly.
In a world where change is occurring more rapidly, driven by science and innovation, inclusive education must leverage technology to bolster the cause of universal access and increasingly personalized learning; video conferencing, virtual reality, and digital courses are redefining when and where learning takes place, and paving the way for greater flexibility and access (a report published by the National Center for Education Statistics in the US showed the number of post-secondary students taking at least some courses online increasing by 5.7% between 2016 and 2017, while the percentage of all students enrolled exclusively in online courses rose to 15.4% from 14.7%).
Making Urban Areas Inclusive
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals provide an important reference point for efforts to make urban areas more inclusive, with their call to make cities safe, resilient, sustainable and inclusive by 2030. Technology innovation can be used to make cities smarter, safer, and more inclusive; accessible Olli, for example, is a self-driving shuttle designed to help people with disabilities and the elderly navigate urban areas with wheelchair ramps, software that can process sign language, and simplified displays for people with memory loss.
Cities have long provided an escape from poverty, though as they have grown (there are now 33 “megacities” with at least 10 million inhabitants) they have stirred debate about their role in addressing global issues like climate change and migration.
From Rotterdam to Iquique, innovative efforts are underway to make cities more liveable for everyone. By 2050, the United Nations estimates 70% of the global population will live in cities. Some local officials have developed related solutions. For example, Rotterdam, the second-biggest city in the Netherlands which mostly sits below sea level, is adapting its infrastructure to live with more water, and bolstering social cohesion with experimental housing and public spaces.
Barcelona, Spain has meanwhile established a process to collaborate with hundreds of civic associations to focus on housing, education, and the treatment of immigrants. Confronted by the estimated two billion people expected to migrate to informal settlements by 2030, some officials are responding with innovative ideas.
In Iquique, Chile, for example, the government engaged architects to design quality housing for migrants in a local informal settlement that is both built to increase in value over time, and is half-constructed - so that residents can use their own labour and resources to complete their homes in a way that further improves the community.
More than 60% of the world’s workers toil in the “informal,” or unregulated economy and lack basic protections. In response, architects commissioned by Durban, South Africa have sought to design safer conditions for the roughly 5,000 informal traders converging daily at a local transportation hub.
Providing young people with a quality education regardless of their ability, race, language, religion, gender, or economic status is also a fundamental part of an inclusive urban society.
In Pune, India, the Door Step School program has been addressing the transience of many workers’ families by sending out a bus-based classroom to pick up students and provide a mobile (yet stable) setting to learn.
The design of public spaces must be continuously re-thought in order to preserve basic humanity. Being human is not something you earn. Yet, despite its shared, intrinsic quality, basic humanity is regularly denied to disabled people and other marginalized groups.
The preservation of human rights for most people relies upon a mix of engineered access, laws, customs, and technology (unlike civil rights, human rights belong to the individual).
Effective functional support encompasses more than physical inclusion, however. For example, language itself needs to be inclusive, and to avoid stigmatizing. And while governments do not confer human dignity, their actions or inaction can either support or erode it. Disability is a useful means to help these governments understand inclusion; The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted in 2006, is the first comprehensive human rights treaty of the 21st century. It is a benchmark framework that guides international progress in formulating and enforcing legislation, strategies, policies and programs that promote equality, inclusion and the empowerment of persons with disabilities.The Convention, which had an initial 82 signatories, the highest number ever for a UN convention on its opening day (the number of signatories has now topped 160), can help ensure human rights and fundamental freedom for many people in need.
Dignity, meanwhile, while fundamental to human rights (the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights cites the recognition of dignity as the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace), is nonetheless perennially vulnerable.
Safeguarding human dignity has not always been valued, and care must be taken to ensure it is respected. In terms of design, this means re-thinking entire systems, structures, and technologies. One simple, often-overlooked example of rethinking traditional design in order to expand access and usability is the tactile, bumpy surface now applied to stretches of sidewalk around the world in order to warn vision-impaired pedestrians about obstacles like curbs. These “tenji blocks” are courtesy of Japanese inventor Seiichi Miyake, who developed them in the 1960s.
Inclusive design requires working closely with communities to tailor a project’s goals to local needs - and giving priority to the vulnerable. Functional support ensures participation, and is a cornerstone of human dignity.
Sustainable Community Design
Destructive storms, heatwaves, polluted air and drought caused by global warming exacerbate environmental injustices that have often located highways, power plants, hazardous waste landfills, and polluting industries in poor neighborhoods.
New ways of funding and designing sustainable, self-sufficient communities are sprouting up. Designing for a climate-challenged environment necessitates a systemic shift; an ability to absorb and recover from disaster is now paramount.
In Los Angeles, a dry city where water must be transported over long distances to reach the population, an initiative called Divining LA engages city planners and low-income residents in identifying stormwater capture opportunities. Meanwhile in the Philippines, the “Design Against the Elements” competition was launched in 2010 to solicit designs for multi-use structures that can withstand increasingly-prevalent extreme weather events.
In Kibera, a large informal settlement in Kenya, the Kibera Public Space Project was formed in 2006 to design and develop micro-enterprises, a community pavilion, a playground, and composting gardens on once-polluted areas. By addressing pollution, designers can also generate economic activity.
The political and architectural practice Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman, for example, working in partnership with local residents, has proposed functional public spaces for under-used areas along the Tijuana-San Diego border that can clean and protect the river and estuary in the area.
Innovative related forms of ownership are also sprouting up; inspired by the Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain, which prioritize people over profits, Cleveland, Ohio-based institutions including universities and hospitals are engaged in a bold experiment to create returns from the green economy for low-income residents by opening employee-owned Evergreen Cooperatives that offer these residents living-wage jobs.
Meanwhile in the western US the Oglala Lakota Nation has designed a more regenerative community to counteract decades of poverty, diminishing life expectancy, and inadequate housing. Based on self-sufficiency, economic self-determination, and environmental resilience, this community is a living laboratory for developing ways to overcome systemic poverty.
Yet, design can also act as a catalyst for positive change; Detroit Future City, for example, is a non-profit group stewarding a 50-year plan to use blue infrastructure (landscapes that capture and clean stormwater) and green infrastructure that harnesses nature to transform neglected parts of this shrinking, post-industrial city. In addition, in Detroit and other cities the Farm Hack online platform supports a more resilient food system by sharing best practices and designs for open-source, affordable farming tools.
Accessibility and Disability
Where no code exists, notions of accessibility vary - and generally come into existence without input from actual people with disabilities (inclusion is a process rather than an outcome, and participation is essential). In general, what makes for effective accessibility changes according to user, task, and environment. In addition, “accessible” design differs from “inclusive” design. Design for disability should move beyond binary thinking to focus on maximum access.
Accessible design that promotes independence can be enforced, still, informal and often erroneous assumptions about what constitutes accessibility persist in many places because of longstanding custom and tradition.
While accessibility - to spaces both physical and virtual - is fundamental, it is also often confined to certain users as defined by economics or education, and therefore undermines the potential for equal participation. Inclusion, on the other hand, builds upon accessibility and goes further by accounting for unequal resources and barriers to participation.
“Disability” is only the currently-preferred term for basic human differences, and the very concept of inclusion is mutable because it is about creating new, unlikely relationships among entities and people.
Real flexibility takes into account varying body types, cognitive capacities, communication styles, and other differences - and design for disability should therefore reject the sort of binary thinking represented by “normal/abnormal,” “able/disabled,” and “male/female,” and instead focus on achieving maximum access and usability. Inclusive design centres on users at the edges of usability, rather than on the norm, in order to help ensure fuller inclusion.
By preparing in advance for the participant whose bodily difference demands a reduction of impediments, inclusion is more easily achieved.
One area of increasing significance in this regard is emergency events; marginalized populations are especially vulnerable to climate change-related emergencies, infrastructure failures, and violence, for example. The health and safety of disabled people must therefore be built directly into every possible response strategy.
DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION
It is important to recognize how inclusive design, which focuses on collaboration resulting in ‘one size fits one person,’ is different from “universal” design and its ‘one size fits all’ mandate. Current issues in the world of inclusive design that merit close attention include accessibility and disability, sustainability, human dignity, mental health, and the inclusiveness of cities.
Inclusive design is a strategy rooted in progressive, post-World War II ideas about providing ways for the marginalized and excluded - whether economically, culturally, or technologically - to gain greater access.