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SXSW 2019: Why Smart Cities Need to Be Inclusive Cities

The push to make cities smarter often disproportionately favors people without disabilities. Experts argue that the dynamic must change so that large segments of the population aren't left out.

AUSTIN, TEXAS — Cities are growing at the fastest rate in human history — and so are the expectations being placed on them. For most, increasingly prevalent smart city technology works as it should. But for those living with disabilities, it often completely misses the mark.

Take, for example, city kiosks meant to streamline the payment of parking tickets or service bills. Between their placement in underserved neighborhoods and the immediate access they offer to city services, they might seem like a fool-proof win for local government, but without features like audible output for blind individuals, a significant cross section of the community is immediately excluded.

Creating more inclusive and accessible cities was the focus for one panel of experts during a morning panel at South by Southwest in Austin March 8.

Karen Tamley, commissioner of the Chicago Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, said she works closely with the city’s CIO to ensure technology solutions are inclusive in the first iteration.

A solution pushed out to the public, like the kiosks mentioned earlier, needs to take all potential users into account or risk costly retrofits, potential lawsuits, and excluding the disabled from access to the most basic services.

“Technology is rapidly changing. We’re introducing technology to conduct business at such a fast pace, but unless there is inclusion and input from the disability community and disabled end [users], we’re [less] likely to have products that are going to be usable for people with disabilities,” she said. 

Tamley likened the need for access to digital city halls to the accessibility upgrades made to physical city halls across the country with ramps, automatic doors and the like. As she sees it, access to technology is nothing short of a civil right in the modern world.

“Cities are rapidly changing, I’ve been with the city for over 10 years and I have seen a change, a significant change from a physical city hall to [digital] city hall,” she said.

Services like online job applications and public documents need to be accessible for everyone, Tamley explained.

But making a city smarter goes beyond the ability to access services; it also needs to be safer for the people living there. As Megan Lawrence, accessibility technical evangelist at Microsoft, explained, technologies are not always trained to protect all people equally.

She pointed specifically to a study from the University of Toronto in which autonomous vehicle simulations were running over people in wheelchairs because they were not trained to identify them.

“We are using data to inform the decisions that we make, to streamline in some sense and make our cities more efficient, but we have to constantly be thinking about — what is the impact to somebody with a disability?” Lawrence said.

She pointed to the benefits of hiring disabled technologists and experts to address issues at the development stages to make accessibility a core component of any solution, pointing to research that showed as much as a 28 percent revenue increase for accessible solutions.

For Enrique de la Madrid, leader of an urban study initiative at Tecnológico de Monterrey, the issue of disability is one that goes hand in hand with aging. Just because a person is not currently disabled, it doesn’t mean they won’t be one day. 

“Because this is an aging society, because we are all living more years, at the end of the day we will all have a type of disability,” de la Madrid said. 

He argued the issue is too large for government to handle on its own and said it requires broader community engagement to achieve truly inclusive cities. 

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at