Smart Design: Inclusive by Default

Last April I went along to the GLA’s Smart London Camp, an unconference bringing together people from a range of backgrounds to discuss and share knowledge and experiences around what London might do to become a “smart” city. Whilst I’m no fan of ‘smart’ anything, it was a chance to take the temperature of current trends in this field, and to reflect on the decade or so of work and experience (1998-2010) when I was more deeply engaged in these issues. It was satisfying to be able to share many of the insights from Urban Tapestries and from the multiple experiments we did in the Social Tapestries programme – and to find that they were still relevant and pertinent after so long. I was encouraged to contribute to the Smart London consultation and submitted this:

Smart London – Design Standards: Inclusive by Default

The importance of speed in technological development and deployment has become a powerful mantra over the past decade or so : from “Minimum Viable Product” to “move fast and break things”. Whilst this may suit situations and opportunities where being nimble and first to market are all important, it never-the-less poses significant issues when trying to design sustainable, resilient services for infrastructure and civic society.

Such forms of development reach first for the “low hanging fruit”, and only when those are exhausted do they consider what needs to be developed for the next layer… iteratively adding to or jury-rigging their systems as they try to adapt for ‘fruit’ that is harder and higher to reach, more inaccessible. If we apply this metaphor to humans, we can see service provision aimed initially at the easiest group to reach (i.e. most profitable), then progressively trying to adapt to serve people with less ability, less capacity (less profitable, but larger demographic). Such systems often end up excluding the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society, reinforcing privilege and amplifying inequalities. In a city as large, dynamic and complex as London such modes of service and system development and design for infrastructure would be questionable, if at all fit for purpose.

Such approaches also extend to the predeliction in the public sector for setting targets to meet agendas over addressing actual needs, creating the appearance of action and delivery over actual provision of services that tackle underlying and root causes.

Systems and services that need to deliver universal access or benefit are not best served by such an ad hoc approach to design. Often they have a statutory duty to ensure that services are available to all sections of society, not matter how hard to reach, or what might need to be done to assist people with access. Such design must be inclusive by default to deliver. It offers challenges for designers that embrace the complexity of the urban built environments as well as a multi-layered society and communities. We should be designing for the most vulnerable, least able, most disadvantaged citizens because, in working out how to satisfy their more challenging needs, we will, within that process, be solving how to meet the needs of more capable, more advantaged citizens along the way.

Inclusive design by default is strategic investment in resilient and sustainable systems and services that will provide long term dividends not only in efficiencies of delivery, but crucially, in human, social and environmental terms.

A classic example of how a design intervention originally intended to benefit a specific, disadvantaged section of the population but which has had universal benefits for the whole population is the “kerb cut”. Pavements were traditionally raised off from the street and pedestrians had to step up and down into the street to cross. After the Second World War campaigns (in the USA, then here in the UK) were started to persuade municipal authorities to create sloping ramps between the street and pavement at crossing points to make it easier for disabled people (especially injured servicemen and women) and people in wheelchairs to cross the street safely. These “kerb cuts” were slowly adopted over the following decades and have been joined by additional features (such as the stippled pavement areas for the vision-impaired). Nowadays, they are such a ubiquitous feature of the built landscape that it seems unimaginable that once they didn’t exist.

Yet everyone benefits: parents with prams and young children in buggies; tourists with wheeled luggage; people with shopping trolleys; older citizens who suffer arthritis or who have hip or knee problems who find steps difficult; people using scooters; anyone with a wheeled bag or case. By designing a solution for a group with significant mobility challenges, benefits now flow to all sections of the population as we ourselves age or our circumstances change, such as having a family. Investing in inclusive design in infrastructure thus brings multi-generational strategic gains.

Standards and norms are often calculated for a notional construct of an ‘average person’ – but this provides very little redundancy for those times when people are not average or normal, nor does it adequately account for the spectrum of norms across age ranges. Such as when we suffer an illness or an accident – or just grow older and are less mobile, and have different norms of capability and capacity. Buildings, transport and public spaces have only recently begun to be designed from the basis of people with disabilities having full access. This is clearly sensible and socially just – by making universal access the default, we are including on the same terms all those, our future selves included, who are not an idealised “average person”.

Giles Lane, April 2018