In his two decades as a self-described "IT and network nerd," Mike Hess has become accustomed to being the only blind employee at his companies. That's why six years ago, he struck out on his own to found the nonprofit Blind Institute of Technology (BIT), with the goal of getting visually impaired people into tech and business jobs, and making sure more blind workers wouldn't be relegated to "token" status.
Now, Hess is turning that attention towards smart cities. From his home city of Denver, Hess has been working with local companies and governments, and speaking at conferences around the country, to make the disabled community's voice heard in the discussions around planning smart cities.
It’s been the subject of plenty of debate. Technology like autonomous vehicles (AVs), augmented reality (AR) and wayfinding backed by artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to work wonders to help people with disabilities navigate and get around cities with more independence than ever before. But some advocates say they’re worried their voices aren’t being heard early on.
Just last week, Smart Cities for All, the collaboration between G3ict and World Enabled, launched Inclusive Innovation for Smarter Cities, a project designed to get innovators and planners thinking about people with disabilities as they design new technology.
Smart Cities Dive spoke to Hess at the recent Colorado Smart Cities Symposium about what tech companies need to do to ensure smart cities work for all residents, and why Denver might be the perfect place for it to happen.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
SMART CITIES DIVE: How do you go from your discussion of employment for the visually impaired to talking about smart cities?
MIKE HESS: At BIT, we’re working with brands that are looking for talent anywhere they can find it. We come to them and say, "All you have to do is implement accessible technology and all of the sudden you’re able to tap into this amazing talent pool that just happens to be people with disabilities."
Now you see where we talk about smart cities. Let’s say there are sensors going up, and there’s a portal where you can tap into the data from these sensors. If those portals aren’t accessible, you’re truly leaving out a huge portion of your citizen base. It’s about being thoughtful in the software development life cycle, and making sure you’re able to capture all citizen input. That’s what the missing component has been.
What sorts of applications could help you?
HESS: Everyone talks about cameras and sensors at stoplights. Okay, now imagine a blind or visually impaired person crossing the street. Out here [gestures to an intersection], I’ve almost been hit several times. To cross, I’m trying to draw a straight line with just a cane, and then I’m listening to traffic. The other day there wasn’t any traffic, and I started to angle into what would be oncoming traffic because I couldn’t hear anything.
Imagine now, the same cameras that are at those stoplights are able to create a geofence, where it talks to the phone in my pocket and keeps me within that crosswalk. This isn’t mystical technology. This is all for real, this can be implemented. These are the kinds of conversations that I bring to folks, and they’ll say, "Oh, I haven’t thought about that."
With changes happening so rapidly, when do tech firms and civic leaders need to be bringing people like you into the planning process?
HESS: I would love to say that these conversations are happening right here right now.
HESS: How many conferences do you go to and there are so many amazing people talking about this amazing technology and all these amazing use cases, and yet I’m the one blind guy on stage saying “Hey, we’re here!” The good news is I’m not going away, this is my passion. And this isn’t some philanthropic thing to help the poor people. No, I’m saying be inclusive to all community members.
"The good news is I’m not going away, this is my passion. And this isn’t some philanthropic thing to help the poor people. No, I’m saying be inclusive to all community members."
Founder, Blind Institute of Technology
How do you get beyond philanthropy and convince tech companies that it’s worth their time to design applications for people with disabilities, a customer base they may not even be planning to serve?
HESS: Applications that are thought of with accessibility and inclusion in mind are better applications overall. Period. This is quantifiable. When you’re thinking of the broader scope of individuals, you end up serving all individuals more effectively. It’s always, always, always better for all users.
Curb cuts are the classic example.
HESS: Exactly, curb cuts are only for people in wheelchairs? Um, talk to the bicycle community here in Colorado, or people with strollers. We’ve got automatic open doors, everyone uses those now. Siri and Alexa and all these voice activation systems, that started 30 years ago with screen reader technology. Guess what, everybody uses these and they started with inclusion in mind.
What role do civic leaders have in these conversations?
HESS: Civic leaders need to listen to all constituents, not just those with deep pockets and not just those who are the squeakiest wheels. I do think city and county of Denver can be the most inclusive place on the planet, including smart city offerings. Mayor [Michael] Hancock has all these commissions, I’m on the commission for people with disabilities, and he shows up. Gov. [John] Hickenlooper, I know he listens too. I’m not saying other governors and mayors aren’t listening, but here I know there’s weight behind it.
There’s also a huge return on investment, because this is a population that has money. There’s this mindset that people with disabilities are on Social Security or Medicare, but on the contrary there’s enormous buying power [a 2018 report from the American Institutes for Research found the after-tax disposable income for working-age people with disabilities was $490 billion]. So this is a population you want to attract.
Project forward, tell me what the ideal city of Denver looks like to you in 2025.
HESS: Denver is the most diverse and inclusion-friendly place on the planet, where someone who is blind or visually impaired can go into every events space that the state of Colorado has to offer. The streets are geofenced, to protect citizens who need a little extra protection. Where accessibility as a concept is brought into every technology ecosystem, and organizations aren’t just serving people with disabilities, they’re employing people with disabilities. We’re part of the culture, part of the fabric of Denver. That’s my utopia.