The development of the wheelchair we know today has unfolded over hundreds of years. While wheelchairs date back as far as 525 AD, it wasn’t until 1665 that Stephen Farfler, a paraplegic watchmaker, created the first self-propelled wheelchair. It then took another 300 years for the first motorized wheelchairs to be mass produced.
History shows us that if you want a technology to develop quickly, someone needs to think that they’re going to get rich developing it. The problem with assistive technology is that this is rarely the case. High R&D costs, an extremely segmented market, and a long path to get your invention certified as a medical device, put off many inventors, or result in products that few can afford.
We’re used to a rapid pace of change in technological innovation, but when it comes to assistive technology that pace has been markedly slower. However, as we transition into the fourth industrial revolution that could all be about to change. We predict that 2019 will be a turning point in the development of assistive technologies that, one day, may transform all our lives.
Whoever you are, there’s a good chance that your daily life is made easier by technology that was originally developed for, or first used by, disabled people.
From early versions of the typewriter, to the precursor to email. From eye-gaze technology that’s making driving safer, to the curb cuts we use everyday without a second thought. Even your mobile phone, now a ubiquitous part of everyday life, evolved from technology originally targeted at disabled people.
The impact of the fourth industrial revolution will supercharge assistive technology. Making mass market products easier and more intuitive to use benefits everyone, and the blurring of physical, digital, and biological spheres is a natural fit. Products designed explicitly for an an assistive technology market help push forward the boundaries of how technology is able to interact with the human body.
Take the wheelchair, for example. Currently, using a wheelchair is like riding a bicycle — to some extent you have to be constantly aware of what the chair is doing and keeping an eye out for hazards. Without your direction, the wheelchair is an inanimate object. But new technologies will make wheelchairs more dynamic and responsive. Eye-gaze control will mean that wheelchairs will respond to the user’s intentions. Sensors will mean that it will detect and react to hazards automatically.
There’s also the potential to upgrade what was previously a tool for getting around into something that will actively contribute towards people’s long term health and wellbeing. Capturing and analysing data on how someone is using their wheelchair will help people better manage their daily activity and risk of injury. It might flag when someone is at risk of pressure sores, for example, which cost the NHS between £1.4 and £2.1 billion per year. It could allow a wheelchair to sense when a user is fatigued, or pick up on bad habits before they result in serious injuries.
Today, there are 13.9 million disabled people in the UK with a combined estimated household spending power of over £200 billion a year. Those figures will increase in the coming years with the UK’s ageing population. People aged 65 and over are the fastest-growing age group, projected to grow by 20.4% over 10 years and by nearly 60% over 25 years in England.
As the number of people in Britain who were either born with or have acquired an impairment grows, the demographic shift will create an increasingly attractive market opportunity and an incentive to ensure that they can fully participate in society. The barriers to innovation will fade.
This does not mean, of course, that progress and access will be universal. People are disabled by barriers in society, rather than their impairments or differences. Those barriers can be physical, like a missing ramp, or in people’s attitudes, like assuming disabled people can't do certain things. This prejudice means that disabled people in the UK are twice as likely to be living in poverty, and that access will continue to be an issue when it comes to assistive technology. That’s why it is so essential to invest in efforts to distribute the benefits of technological innovation more broadly, and ensure they create public value.
In 2019, we will also start to see the fruits of more purposeful efforts to drive innovation in these fields. The British government has launched the Healthy Ageing Challenge, which will invest up to £98 million in research and innovation that supports people as they age. It’ll fund research into behavioural science and design for an ageing population, collaborative R&D projects for early-stage innovations that focus on digital healthcare and older adults, and three demonstrator projects to trial how innovations can work in real life.
Here at Nesta, we’ve focused on how we can open up the sector to smaller or newer innovators, raise awareness of the need but also the opportunity, and, ensure that innovators develop and refine their ideas in collaboration with potential users to ensure that they are effective.
In January, with our partners the Toyota Mobility Foundation, we’ll be announcing five finalists of the $4 million Mobility Unlimited Challenge, which supports the mobility and independence of people with lower-limb paralysis. Finalists will then have until September 2020 to develop their devices, each of which will incorporate software that allows it to sense and dynamically respond to the user’s intentions, their body and their environment. Our aim is to support devices that will radically improve people’s everyday mobility and independence and we’ll be announcing the winner of the $1 million final prize in Tokyo, 2020.
In 2019, we’ll see a turning point in the development of assistive technologies that, one day, may transform all our lives. We’re working to make sure that the benefits reach as many people as possible.
Charlotte Macken is a Prize Design Manager in Nesta's Challenge Prize Centre.