A New Era of Inclusive Innovation

In the age of heightened connectivity, how can we make our digital world more accessible for all? 

There is no question that technological advances continue to improve the quality of life for many of us, making tasks more efficient, productive and far more of an experience. However there is a segment of society that remains technologically marginalised, and not for lack of accessibility to a computer and the internet, but accessibility in the broader sense of the word – the physical ability to engage with not only technological offerings but also life in general.

Against this backdrop, a new raft of inclusive innovations are driving a big leap forward with assistive technologies that aim to revolutionise the lives of the disabled or otherwise handicapped.

Known for their quality and durability in autos, Japanese carmaker Toyota has taken these principles and applied them to mobility solutions of a different kind. Their Human Support Robots (HSR), are designed to assist individuals with disabilities  to perform everyday tasks and provide greater independence. The HSR offers 3 broad functions: pick-up, fetch and manual control. Predominantly used in Japanese hospitals to assist with the country’s growing elderly population, the HSR was recently used for the first time in a private home, that of paralyzed Army veteran Romulo Carmago.  

This courteous and obliging companion is part of a broader family of Robot Partners by Toyota, including the Walk Assist Robot, Care Assist Robot and Robina and Humanoid, both of which can assist with performing housework, provide medical advice and even burst into a classical violin performance on demand.

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Meanwhile, the Canadian not-for-profit organization, Neil Squire Society recently received the RESNA (Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America) Award for Most Disruptive Technology for its work on LipSync, a device that helps paralysed users engage with touchscreens, using minimal head and neck movement. The device is based on a mouth operated joystick sensor, requiring only limited pressure to operate.  LipSync aims to support the estimated 1 million individuals in North America who have limited or no use of their arms, providing a platform through which to connect with the world. The project will be made available through open source platforms, so that enthusiasts in the community can create and improve on the device, and further support those for whom independence and (digital) exploration has, until recently, been just out of reach.

By contrast, applications of assistive technology has transitioned to uses in manufacturing environments such as factories.  Swiss Design consultancy Studio Sapetti have created the “Chairless Chair”. Similar in premise to that of an exoskeleton – a powered frame that enables restoration of motor controls, including limb movement with increased strength and endurance – the Chairless Chair aims to help those working in industrial environments where a traditional chair would be obstructive and are thus required to stand for long periods of time. Sapetti’s creation helps to reduce physical strain, protect workers’ joints and improve posture.

So What? 

In a world of rapidly escalating technological advance, the margins for true innovation are growing increasing narrow and the battleground for market differentiation more crowded by the day. Will the technology leaders of the future be those who recognise that the next frontier to be conquered lies in not just optimising current experiences and applications, but in rethinking the role of technology entirely, reinventing the mechanisms by which we connect to the digital world and appropriating these digital advances to solve real human challenges of the physical world?