Domain: Research

Themes: Inclusive Design

Working towards inclusive infrastructure in cities around the world

Assistive technology (AT) can improve lives, but only if the surrounding environment enables its effective use. In particular, cities and buildings need to be accessible and inclusive, as this helps to create an enabling environment for disabled people. GDI Hub Co-founder and Director of Inclusive Design, Iain McKinnon, is leading research on inclusive design in cities across the developing world.

The reality of many buildings and cities throughout the world is that they have not been designed with accessibility in mind. There is an increasing awareness of the issues, with inclusive design strategies becoming more widespread and meaningfully implemented. However, in many places, there remains a lot of work to be done.

To ensure everyone can experience the world around them in a fair and inclusive way, evidence, strategies and tools are needed to support the implementation of accessible buildings and inclusive city infrastructure.

Understanding the issues in cities

In response to this, Iain McKinnon is leading a sub-programme of the AT2030 programme with a focus on ‘Inclusive Infrastructure’, focusing on six cities in developing countries.

“If the environment prohibits you from using AT, then it’s redundant, the research we’re doing is a deep dive in six cities, to understand how inclusive they are or not. We want to understand what the lived experience is of disabled people living in those cities, and to see where improvements can be made.”

McKinnon and his team have already completed the research and subsequent reports in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), Varanasi (India), and Surakarta (Indonesia). Data collection is complete in Nairobi (Kenya) and Freetown (Sierra Leone). The sixth city will be Medellin in Colombia, ensuring the research has a truly global reach. The purpose of choosing a broad range of cities in different parts of the world is to pull out the varying cultural and environmental contexts, as well as to find common issues and challenges. Eventually, the team will produce a ‘Global Action Report’ with a core set of recommendations that could be implemented anywhere in the world.

To understand the issues in each city, qualitative research is undertaken across people, policy and practice, led by GDI Hub’s Senior Inclusive Design Researcher, Mikaela Patrick. This involves speaking to disabled people to understand what it’s like for them to live in their city, with information gathered through interviews, photo diaries and workshops, all supported by local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and organisations of persons with disabilities (OPDs). To gain insights into the policy perspective, interviews and workshops are conducted with government stakeholders and representatives from relevant ministries, to understand the policy context and the legislative framework that exists in the city around access and inclusion. In terms of practice, the team talks to architects, urban designers and planners working in the city, to understand the realities of project delivery. Occasionally, the research is supplemented by providing inclusive design consultancy services to live projects in the city.

After the research in each city is complete, the team and local partners hold workshops to synthesize the findings, discuss design aspects and reach collective conclusions. An executive summary and full report with recommendations are then produced, and a dissemination event is hosted to help the city government understand what the follow up actions should be.

Next steps

Although the research is ongoing, McKinnon notes that there are a number of common themes coming through in the evidence that has been collected so far. A key one is that implementation is a challenge. Even when guidance, technical standards or building regulations are in place, many of these are not implemented, and there is often little consequence for not adhering to the rules. In some cases, there may just be a small fine to pay, allowing an inaccessible building to be ‘signed off’.

McKinnon’s work is also showing how different cities and countries are at very different stages of the process of addressing accessibility. While there is always room for improvement, the UK’s planning processes and checks are robust, with accessibility increasingly designed into all aspects of the built environment. Yet in some of the cities McKinnon has been working in, there are not always even pavements or roads. The different starting points for inclusive design are vast, which impacts the amount of work that needs to be done to improve things for disabled people.

There are also cultural and environmental nuances in each city that must be factored into future plans. For example, in Ulaanbaatar, there is an accessible bus for people with mobility issues. However, only one bus in the fleet is accessible with no certainty about when it will arrive. In winter, the extreme freezing temperatures mean it’s not viable to wait outside indefinitely, waiting for the accessible bus to arrive. In Varanasi, blind and partially sighted people can be nervous to use their white canes in the city as the sacred cows that wander the streets often perceive the canes as weapons and in some cases will charge at them.

Once the research phase is complete, McKinnon would like to work directly with city governments to help pave the way towards more inclusive design in each of the cities. Prior to co-founding GDI Hub, McKinnon led on inclusive design for the development of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park as part of the London 2012 Paralympic Legacy programme. He believes that working directly with city governments for up to a year, to implement the recommendations from the research, can make substantial and sustainable positive change.

“We don’t want this research to sit somewhere and just get referenced occasionally,” McKinnon said. “We want to be proactive and make sure it’s used. If we could work directly with city governments, we could help them embed disability inclusion across planning processes and infrastructure. Once you turn one city around and demonstrate the huge benefits, other cities will want to do the same.”

Funded by: UK Aid – Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)