The UAE leadership is united in their understanding that the most important infrastructure investments that cities can make deliver both economic and social advantage to all of its people. Where concrete and roads were once the hallmarks of city development, today citizens demand a far more responsive government, one equitably leveraging the promises of our twenty-first-century digitally connected society. Dubai has made major investments in building out a state of the art program called Smart Dubai to provide improved services, more efficient processes, and greater equity for all, including persons with disabilities.
Investments in more inclusive digital infrastructure result in people being more productive and having access to government services that are more responsive to the needs of citizens. Dubai has also invested considerable resources in becoming the world’s “smartest” and now also the most accessible city. In doing so, they may be gaining a competitive advantage over other cities that are slow to implement the technological and policy changes that deliver more connected and empowered people. In listening to city leaders in Dubai and around the world, one key message appears; they are all driven to provide all their constituents with an improved quality of life through better and more personalized services, whether or not they have a disability.
Before we explore Smart Dubai, let’s define our key terms. “Smart City” is used to describe the types of infrastructure investments that allow for improved connectivity, efficiency, and access to services within cities. The Smart Cities Council defines a Smart City as one that “uses information and communications technology (ICT) to enhance its livability, workability, and sustainability.” ICT includes the full range of modern smart devices, sensors, and software that maximizes the potential of technology to improve the ways that cities operate and for people to access a city’s full range of environments and services. Not only do they allow for more efficient operation of city services such as energy or water systems, public transport networks, or public safety, but they are often also the deciding factor on whether persons with disabilities or elderly persons can independently utilize a city’s services rather than being completely reliant on external assistance, or worse, being forced to remain confined to their homes. Until recently most global discussions on Smart Cities left out persons with disabilities.
Dubai is fully aware of the importance of becoming a recognized Smart City and due to the Dubai disability strategy of 2015, one that is accessible and inclusive. The Smart Dubai initiative was launched by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, in 2013. The primary aims of the program were to transform Dubai to a Smart City by linking the city’s services and improving access to them via smart devices, providing high-speed wireless internet in public locations, and installing a series of sensors throughout the city to provide live information. The program has the lofty aim of making Dubai the “smartest city on the planet,” which it will achieve via a mandate that outlines four key pillars and six dimensions.
The four pillars are:
Efficient—optimized use of resources
Seamless—integrated daily life services
Safe—anticipate risks and protect people and information
Impactful—enriched life and business experiences for all
The six dimensions are defined as a series of strategic initiatives and partnerships based on improvements across the areas of economy, living, governance, environment, people, and mobility. Note that although neither list prioritizes access or inclusion, there are entry points in the pillars (seamless, impactful) and dimensions (living, people, and mobility).
Both the pillars and dimensions, however, clearly state that the Smart Dubai’s aims include improvements in inclusiveness and the life experiences of all citizens. The steps which the program is taking to achieve these goals include hubs that unify government services, a customer experience lab to improve the accessibility of these services, as well as a “happiness meter” voting program to determine people’s levels of happiness across different regions within the city on an ongoing basis. The Smart Dubai customer experience program showcases kiosks that feature universal design to ensure the government services kiosks are usable for persons with various types of functional needs.
The Smart Dubai program is a continuation of other innovative programs that have been previously developed and implemented by the Dubai government to drive global competitiveness. These included the Dubai Government Excellence Program, launched in 1997, which aimed to prioritize service excellence, as well as the Dubai eGovernment program, launched in 1999 to boost internet penetration in the emirate at a time when global internet penetration was less than 5%.
The success of programs such as Smart Dubai in effecting the real quality of life improvements for persons with disabilities lies in remaining accountable to the stated aims to improve the life experiences of all citizens, irrespective of if they have difficulty hearing, seeing, remembering, or have challenges with manual dexterity. Metrics are being put in place to accurately show that these improvements are occurring and being used by persons with disabilities and that the programs themselves continue to evolve and follow an iterative, continuous improvement process on inclusive design and usability. Aligning these types of programs with internationally recognized and broadly adopted ICT accessibility frameworks and standards is vital and the Smart Cities for All Global Initiative that I co-founded with my colleague James Thurston is helping cities to become smarter and more accessible.
Bridging the Digital Divide in Inclusive and Smart Cities
Dubai should have a vested interest in leading the dialogue on the role of technology in building smart, accessible, and inclusive cities. By building in accessibility standards into their procurement process and standardizing digital platforms in line with global access requirements, Dubai is bridging the divide between people with disabilities and those without. Digital accessibility standards like US Section 508 and the European Union’s EN 301549 ensure the availability and usability of web and mobile content to all. Although the city and national governments are continuously developing accessibility-related regulation and compliance mechanisms, accessible and inclusive cities can create a market for and incentivize enterprises to bridge the digital divide. Through strong regulations and enforcement mechanisms, Dubai is building an inclusive digital ecosystem with private firms working across the public sector to deliver accessible and inclusive solutions. Companies operating in the UAE now have opportunities to strengthen their accessibility offerings, enabling them to improve the customer experience, appeal to new customer segments, and enter new markets to achieve end-to-end accessible outcomes.
Design for Humans
Human-centered design, or inclusive design, is creating a new cultural mindset and engineering approach that initiates and drives the creation of inclusive solutions and digital experiences. Cities and companies that deliver inclusive solutions have a broader and more universal appeal. They provide frictionless experiences and by doing so increase their influence and reach. The power of inclusive thinking is a mindset shift that helps ensure all products and services integrate inclusion and accessibility into city policies, processes, and operations. At a minimum, this requires accessibility training for developers and the active and meaningful engagement of people with disabilities and disability professionals. Microsoft and Apple are also leading the way in inclusive design and incorporating inclusive design practices into public sector solutions.
Artificial Intelligence and the Dubai Future Foundation
Artificial Intelligence-enabled technologies are creating new interfaces and convergence between assistive and mainstream technologies that can cater to a wide set of needs and abilities, as long as they are trained to be inclusive. Dubai is home to the world’s first Museum of the Future, and through the Dubai Future Foundation is leveraging AI to empower people with disabilities. Some areas of interest include assistive robotics; content translation and voice enablement; image and video identification; and mental health.
Workforce Marketplaces, New Industries and Standards
Cities like Dubai and businesses like Microsoft that have made a commitment to accessibility and inclusion are not merely creating new products and services; they are shaping new marketplaces and even seeding new digital industries. Changes in technology standards, ethical norms, government mandates, and privacy are currently defining the contours of an ecosystem-driven digital economy. Users, customers, and increasingly talent can always move. Cities can opt to exclude a significant segment of the population and can make life more challenging for people with disabilities or they can make intentional steps toward leading the inclusion revolution.
Inclusive and Accessible Cities of the Future
Global trends are now demonstrating that technology holds undeniable opportunities for cities that make accessibility an integral part of their digital infrastructure, online services, e-government platforms, and the way they do business. Cities and businesses that prioritize accessibility can experience what Accenture is dubbing the accessibility advantage
. This allows them to attract and retain talented workers, develop breakthrough innovations in services, reach new markets and demographics, and keep pace with rapidly evolving accessibility standards in the shifting technological landscape.
For cities to advance their digital inclusion position, they also need to shrink the digital divide and consider these actions:
Understand the implications of accessibility on everything they do
Celebrate inclusion as a core value
Design accessibility into core strategies and measure progress over time
Transform urban design and development processes to feature accessibility and inclusion as key components of urban innovation and resilience
Build a diverse ecosystem of partners, including local and national linkages and cross-functional task forces continuously advancing policies and programs that advance access and inclusion