Visiting the Liberty Festival at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London

Global Disability Innovation Hub aims to ‘disrupt disability’

A new hub aiming to improve the lives of the world’s one billion disabled people through technology, co-design and innovation is coming to the heart of East London.

The Global Disability Innovation (GDI) Hub, based within the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, is being led by University College London (UCL), with partners including the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), Loughborough University London, London College of Fashion, Leonard Cheshire Disability, the Victoria and Albert Museum and Sadler’s Wells Theatre. 

The idea emerged from work led by UCL’s Catherine Holloway into finding practical uses for the latest research on disability and innovation. The Hub’s development was spurred on by a UCL Grand Challenge award, led by Dr Maria Kett, that allowed over 150 people to take part in a week of ‘hacks’ focusing on a number of challenges, including designing transport for Zimbabwean disabled children and developing methods for people with visual impairments to navigate the new UCL East campus.

“From a personal perspective I have had a desire to create a centre where people could co-develop their own assistive technologies for some time and I proposed this idea when UCL Engineering looked for possible projects for our new UCL East campus,” says Holloway, now co-director of the GDI Hub.

"It became apparent quite quickly, working with LLDC’s Paralympic Legacy team and realising the scope of opportunity afforded by the partners coming together on the Cultural and Educational District of the Park, that this could be much bigger than I had first envisaged.

“I am very keen to ensure that the Hub develops spokes globally, each one dedicated to developing new ways of co-creating assistive technologies, of embedding sensor technology for adaptability and feedback and to developing metrics of success.”

The goal is for the GDI Hub to become a leading centre of research and knowledge sharing, as its manifesto highlights:

“Taking inspiration from CERN we are ambitious. We intend to become the world’s leading cross-disciplinary research and practice centre on disability issues. Barefoot activism meets robust research meets tech solutions – we believe that creativity, innovation and change comes from the spaces between the places where we feel comfortable right now.”

It may still be very early days – the Hub was officially launched in September – but already many innovative multidisciplinary research projects are underway alongside outreach activities and new academic opportunities.

Projects that have already begun include two funded by the EPSRC. Power-up! is focusing on developing novel driving interfaces and power supplies for wheelchairs, while the aim of Accessible Routes from Crowdsourced Cloud Services (ARCCS) is to create small sensors that attach to wheelchairs and automatically classify surface type and number of pushes, using this information to develop maps highlighting accessibility.

“Following on from this we have a project called Street Rehab where we are transferring learning from ARCCS to India and working with a team there to create accessible maps of New Delhi,” says Holloway.

“Then we have a research project looking at how customisation of prosthetics can promote individual identity through form and function and a team of disabled people (LLDC’s Built Environment Access Panel) working with LLDC to ensure their world-leading inclusive design standards are applied and to inform and support the planning of new buildings and homes on the Park – including the new UCL campus,”  she highlights.

There are many different ways people can get involved with the Hub, with a growing online community where people from around the world can exchange ideas and findings, outreach events including further hackathons planned for the near future and new academic courses currently in development.

These include sponsored PhD opportunities with the Hub’s founding partners and a new MSc course that will see students work on practical projects with local makers and practitioners.

“We are developing an MSc in global disability innovation,” says Holloway. “UCL is leading this, but it will be delivered with Loughborough in London and UAL’s London College of Fashion.”

The aim is for this course to encourage and attract disabled people from a range of different backgrounds, as the Hub recognises that “diversity makes genuine real sense and lived experience is essential to good decision-making”.

In addition it will be launching a number of PhD studentships for a September 2017 start and is currently scoping short-course opportunities around issues like inclusive design.

The Hub has also set a date for its first-ever summit: 13-14 July 2017.

“We have just appointed our first two members of staff,” enthuses Holloway, “one of whom’s sole task is to deliver the summit. It is envisioned that there will be satellite events across the country, with the main event taking place at UCL East’s temporary campus at Here East.”

It’s an exciting time for those interested in ‘disrupting disability’ and there are many different possibilities for engineers from all walks of life to get involved. Holloway is excited to see what the future will bring and hopes that interest will be high in the Hub’s various activities, with more to be added next year including volunteering and teaching opportunities.

To find out more about the Global Disability Innovation Hub or to become part of its work, visit https://www.disabilityinnovation.com/.

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