July 4, 2021

Sustainability and the opportunity to leave no-one behind.

On Friday 25th I was Keynote Speaker on DTU Green Challenge. The following is a modified version of that speech.

Denmark has launched the new development strategy. The strategy sets the frame for the next four years on how Denmark will use 0,7 pct. of our GNP – the money we spend on development and climate aid. And tackling the climate change is one of the most important topics in the strategy. But the new development strategy also states, that at the heart of everything, even the actions focused on climate change, we need to make sure that we leave no one behind. That is sustainability.

That the heart of all our activities should be to include some of the most vulnerable groups, such as persons with disabilities. Vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities are some of the most affected by the climate change, the current COVID-19 pandemic or any other crisis you can think about. But maybe even more important, if you challenge yourself and go the extra mile to make your solutions accessible for all, you make your business case a lot stronger or in the case of Denmark’s development aid – you make your investment in the supported societies a lot stronger.

Smart Mobility

But how do we make our focus stronger by combining green and red sustainability? Let me try to give an example: Public transportation is a key when it comes to reducing our carbon submissions, but it is also vital for social sustainability, allowing us all a chance to get to our education, to our job or to social activities. So, it would make sense if we design in order to make public transportation convenient to use, easily accessible for everyone.

And yet no less than two weeks ago I read an article made by city and traffic planner at Moe, Lill Bjerregaard and Market Manager in Smart

Mobility at Rambøll, Marianne Weinreich. An article about Smart Mobility and how we forget women when designing and it mentioned the many gender differences in mobility and transportation patterns. And the articles highligts that even if more women than men use the public transportation, we still design the public transportation from a man’s point of view.

And not only do we have a gender bias, we also tend to design with a bias related to our skin color, to our cultural norms. And we have a strong bias when it comes to how we function and what we consider normality.

Universal design

In order to design technology with the promise of sustainability and the promise of technology leaving no one behind, we need use universal design to take our differences into the design process and become inspired from it.

For example, how can I as a woman wheelchair user have equal access to public transportation? And I am not just talking about adding a usable ramp to a bus or a train. Which believe me, would be a massive step forward for Denmark. Universal Design is not about an add-on accessibility feature, and it is not about designing special solutions for a special target group.

We need to consider how our transportation needs differ, consider what else effects our travel choices, what barriers there are. We need to consider all the users, the existing and the potential ones, and design in a way that facilitates more. The challenges can be the foundation for new solutions, not only for a person like me, but it is also for many others.

For example: Designing with step-free access is important for me, but it is also great for parents with strollers, passengers with luggage on wheels or with bicycles. And tackling the issues I face with the acceleration and deceleration of trains and busses, could also be great for elderly, people

with balance issues or people travelling with small children. Designing universally opens new opportunities to more sustainable solutions.

A small country

Sometimes it might be challenging to live in a small country like Denmark.

But there are also benefits. The distances are never great, you do not have to drive far in order to get from one part of the country to another, but what is more important is that any person who you might want to consult isn’t far either. You can break the barriers of our social circles; you can talk to people with experiences far from your own. Gain new insight, be challenged to develop new ideas.

We have a lot of data in Denmark and even though we need much more, for example regarding public transportation. We can use it to discover when our technology does leave people behind and use it to invent new solutions. How can we create a more inclusive public transportation? Or moving away from transportation, how can we make green solutions more accessible and user-friendly? Or how can technology help create a more inclusive education system or a more inclusive labor market?

And if you want to focus on refugees in Turkey, on starving children in Somalia, marginalized women in India or people who have become disabled because of conflicts in Honduras, Denmark is still one of the countries that funds a lot of development aid and have many development organizations with good connections. And as I mentioned in the beginning, there is a growing focus on the intersection of climate change, on climate action and the most marginalized and vulnerable groups of the world. Including people with disabilities.

It is all about action now

The solutions of today, needs to work many years into the future. That is a reflection from the article about Smart Mobility and gender.

On the same day the article was published I attended a big conference about the Sustainable Development Goals. One of the key messages was “It is all about action now”.

We cannot keep continuing down the path we have been on. Using more resources than the earth can sustain and excluding people, who could teach us.

A successful business leader from the conference said, “Sustainability must be part of the business identity”. Stakeholders and investors demand it. Sustainability should be reported on, just as we do financial reporting. And when we talk about sustainability the focus is both on the climate and on social responsibility.

The Corona pandemic has been a magnifying glass for our society, those marginalized have too often become even more marginalized and the flaws in the system has caused exclusions. And when attempts have been made to try and fix those flaws, is has too often been in the form of add-on solutions instead of Universally Designed solutions.

The experiences from the pandemic have made the UN call for us all to Build Back Better. And who better to do that, than a group of young engineers, challenged to make a difference. Challenged to make sure that Technology leaves no one behind.

It will be a challenge to go down this road, but it is also an opportunity like no other. Creating new solutions, improving and showing the way.

It is all about action now. We cannot go on as before.

It is all about sustainability and the opportunity to leave no-one behind.

Sif Holst

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