A core premise of the UN’s 2030 Agenda is inclusivity: All humans have a right to fully participate in life, with no one left behind. The concept of inclusion applies to infrastructure across cities – ensuring that everyone counts, and that every citizen can access the opportunities – and overcome the challenges – of urban environments.
Everyone has a right to fully participate in economic, political and cultural life, access essential services, and live without fear of violence or discrimination. Yet many groups and individuals remain marginalised on the basis of ethnicity, gender, age, identity or disability.
In urban contexts, people with disabilities may face particular challenges in relation to accessibility of public transport, building and infrastructure, or curtailed freedom of movement based on safety concerns. It is estimated that about 15% of the global population (approximately 1 billion people) has some type of impairment or disability. The ratio is higher in developing countries, where 20% have a disability. This share is expected to increase in the next years due to longer life expectancy, the spread of diseases, road traffic accidents and disaster scenarios (such as extreme weather events or violent conflict), where people with disabilities are particularly vulnerable.
Around the world, it is estimated that 36 million people are blind, while 253 million people live with vision impairment – a generic term used to define a vast spectrum of visual conditions. Mild, moderate, or severe visual impairment can compromise quality of life and wellbeing, with those affected being three times more likely to be involved in a vehicle collision, or experience depression and anxiety disorders. For the visually impaired, technology – used for both learning and communication – is key to inclusion. Tactile writing, also known as Braille, plays a major role in enabling blind and visually impaired people to more fully participate. Smartphones and tablets are also great tools for assistive support (making use of tailored applications, adjustable text and image sizes, audio playback, etc.), for those with visual impairment and a wide range of other disabilities.
Another major issue affecting urban societies, even in higher-income countries, is economic exclusion – where wealth or income inequalities prevent some citizens from being able to fully access opportunities, or even maintain a minimum standard of living. An example of economic exclusion is fuel poverty – a major challenge not only in the developing world, but also in Europe and in the UK. A household is defined as fuel poor if their fuel costs leave them with a residual income so low that it pushes them below the poverty line; a situation affecting 11.1% of the English population today. Furthermore, approximately 3,200 annual excess winter deaths in England are directly attributed to fuel poverty, which disproportionally affects children, the elderly, and those with poor health conditions.
Fuel poverty is a manifestation of the nexus of low household incomes, poor energy efficiency, and high fuel prices, and hence the problem can only be addressed by tackling these three main dimensions. District heating systems provide an affordable partial solution to fuel exclusion. Based on renewable energy sources, district heating is also a sustainable alternative option to the use of fossil fuels. Indeed, climate change mitigation is a priority concern, as it may contribute to frequent occurrence of extreme temperature, further aggravating the issues of winter deaths and fuel poverty.
Inclusion through technology
A wide variety technological solutions are available today, to make sure that billions of people worldwide are not excluded – from smartphone technology for the visually-impaired to more affordable energy solutions for the poor. Minerals and metals are key to the construction and functioning of almost all of these.
Braille is a reading and writing system for the blind or visually impaired. The characters are formed of raised dots which are pushed into the paper by a special typewriter, enabling users to read the bumps with their fingerprints. Before the invention of braille, the blind were generally not taught how to read and write. Even though the use of smartphones is more practical and can aid people with different levels of impairment, braille enables people to be independent, access education and enjoy books without the need of electronic devices – comprising a lower-cost solution that does not require handsets, charging or an energy source. Use of braille has enabled the visually impaired to integrate into society, study, and have careers – with braille writers being key to enabling this. Braille writers are constructed in a similar way to regular typewriters, which are primarily made of steel. Zinc is another important material, as it is used for the plates used to print braille books, as well as in the manufacture of tactile signs.
Smartphones have pushed assistive technology to a different level, promoting the inclusion of people with a wide range of disabilities. By enabling greater independence, apps can empower individuals, improving self-confidence and wellbeing. For those with learning difficulties, examples include apps that can translate speech into text, vocalise calculations and improve spatial and working memory. For those with mobility difficulties, examples include apps that search for accessible places, parking spots and wheelchair-friendly toilets. Apps are now advancing to enable users with disabilities to be tracked in real-time to assist them when using the public transport network. This gives passengers greater independence when making journeys, while allowing staff to anticipate and respond to customer needs. Smartphones may contain over 60 types of metals in their composition, including rare-earth metals such as scandium, yttrium, elements 57-71 lanthanides, neodymium and dysprosium.
District heating is a system that supplies energy for a centralised settlement, such as a city or town. Many different energy sources are used for district heating production. These include waste, biofuel, heat pumps, landfill gas, natural gas, propane/butane, electricity, and fuel oil. Different energy sources may be used simultaneously in a plant, allowing for a stable and flexible supply of heat. Heat pumps are a cleaner source when compared to gas boilers, since they do not use fossil fuels to provide heat. Thus, the concurrent use of a district heating system with heat pumps combine low carbon generation with the reliability and the efficiency of a large-scale network. Successful schemes have been running in mainland Europe for over a decade, and are now starting to be deployed in the UK. Heat pumps can be also used for cooling, which is valuable to prevent overheating in summer. Materials used in heat pumps include aluminium, copper, zinc, magnesium, iron, and chromium. The pipes used for heat distribution are made of steel, which are insulated with a layer of foam and then protected with an external polyethylene pipe.