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Predicting real inclusion in assistive technologies

Challenge prizes can’t solve every problem, but they can bring previously silenced voices into the innovation process, helping us to move away from ‘business as usual’ and identify much needed solutions.

Last Thursday, I was asked to speak about what assistive technology might look like in 2025 at Disability Rights UK’s (DR UK) seminar: ‘Equal Participation: Disability Rights in a Changing World’. Coinciding with the launch of DR UK’s new three-year strategic plan, the event aimed to bring together their members to discuss where to go from here.

Preparing for this event meant considering the role that challenge prizes can play in promoting and shaping innovation. I also thought about the value an assistive tech prize could add by promoting the role of disabled people in the creation of assistive technologies.

Challenge prizes: focused and broad

As a tool, challenge prizes can be both very focused and very broad.

When we’re developing a prize, our team completes a scoping and design process that means going and finding out what the problem actually is rather than what it’s thought to be, what type of solutions are needed and what barriers are stopping the problem from being solved. Knowing this allows us confirm that a challenge prize is the right tool to use, create the challenge statement (which entrants respond to when applying) and shape the prize’s T&Cs (setting out who can apply and what we’ll be looking for in winning solutions).

So challenge prizes are broad as they involve speaking to a range of interested parties to get a comprehensive view of the problem, open up the problem to a broader range of solvers and allowing innovators to come up with solutions rather than tell them what the solutions should be.

But they are also focused, zeroing in on the bottlenecks where a prize can have the biggest impact on a problem and specifying the conditions that need to be met to promote success.

The Inclusive Tech Prize: supporting solutions, promoting co-creation

With the Inclusive Technology Prize we’re looking to support innovative assistive technologies that will enable more equal access to life’s opportunities for disabled people, their friends, families and carers.

During the scoping process, the disabled people we spoke to told us that a lot of assistive tech didn’t fit into their lives and much of what is currently on the market seems to have been developed by people with little knowledge about what disabled people want and need. This process confirmed that co-creation, or co-production, needed to be a key criteria for the Prize. Involving the people who would benefit from assistive tech solutions facilitating the production of better tech and advocating for the crucial role of disabled people in the design process.

Three trends shaping assistive tech of the future

During DR UK’s event, I suggested that trends shaping innovations in assistive tech in 2025 could include:

  • the internet opening up the means of production - allowing people to access previously inaccessible industrial equipment to produce the products they want. Recent project Robochop gave us a taste of what this future might look like
  • machines that learn - powered by algorithms that respond to what’s happening, learning and adapting to what the users needs. Think ‘Siri of the future’
  • 3D printing - low cost and efficient software driven manufacturing allowing products to be adapted to individual as well as facilitating a move away from the reliance on mass production business models that often fail to produce the tailored assistive tech disabled people need.

As I said on the day, these predictions might be right or wrong, but what is for certain is the need for assistive tech to be created with or by disabled people.

And that’s the future the Inclusive Technology Prize is trying to promote. If you take a focused view of the Prize, it’s supporting the development of a handful of great products and providing £50,000 to one solution to help get it to market. But if you take a broader view, the Inclusive Technology Prize is seeking to demonstrate that co-creation with disabled people is the key to great innovations in assistive tech, and that their participation in the design and production process is as important today as it will be in 2025.

Photo credit: image by Aidan Jones

Author

Charlotte Macken

Charlotte Macken

Charlotte Macken

Programme Manager, Challenge Prize Centre

Charlotte is a Programme Manager in the Centre for Challenge Prizes, working on the Inclusive Technology Prize as well as a range of other projects and prizes. She first joined Nesta...

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