Friday, 30 March 2018

APPGAT: Assistive Technology and the Industrial Strategy

This week, I attended the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Assistive Technology's symposium on Assistive Technology and the Industrial Strategy. This was a new experience for me: policy and parliament are both rather outside my sphere of experience, but ever since Claire Brockett organised a Parliamentary outreach session on Science and Academia in UK Policy, I've been thinking about how I might engage more with Westminster, and this seemed like a good opportunity to get involved and keep my finger on the pulse. 

I went with two hats on (not literally) - representing both the Centre for Disability Studies, and the Institute of Design, Robotics and Optimisation - though I was there for both in very much a listening capacity. Just attending was an interesting experience - the format was very different from anything one experiences in academia. Each presenter got five minutes, the keynote got ten, and the timekeeping was absolutely dead on. The floor was opened to questions and comments, the questions were (more or less) answered by the panel, and that was the end of the session. By academic standards - where presentations are usually fifteen to twenty minutes and frequently overrun - this was lightning fast. Of course, the aim wasn't to describe a detailed piece of research, but to give high level comments, and make way for discussion.

The session was chaired by Lord Chris Holmes (Conservative Peer and noted Paralympian Swimmer), and had contributions from Hazel Harper  of Innovate UK, Bill Esterson MP (Shadow Minster for International Trade, and Shadow Minister for Small Business), Prof Nigel Harris (Director of the outstanding Designability), David Frank (Microsoft's UK Public Affairs Manager), 
Dr. Catherine Holloway (Academic Director of the Global Disability Innovation Hub), Alex Burghart MP (Member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee), with the keynote coming from Sarah Newton MP, Minister for Disabled People. This was followed by questions from the floor - I won't go through a blow-by-blow account of what was said: rather, let me pull out the key themes.

Of course, there were two themes that were in some tension here - as always in assistive technology - the needs of disabled people to remove barriers and find solutions that enable them to do what they wish to do; and the needs of the designers and manufacturers of assistive technology to keep making new devices and thereby keep making money. This technology exists within academia, as well, of course - the REF requires me to produce new and cutting edge engineering (AI! Exoskeletons! Self-Driving Cars!), which isn't necessarily the same research that will most benefit disabled people. Which isn't to say that the two are mutually exclusive, of course, but it is a source of tension.

This tension exists in the Industrial Strategy itself: this strategy is all about "building a more productive economy". So, in terms of AT does that mean improving the productivity of the AT sector? Or does it mean AT to improve the productivity of disabled people? This was never really addressed - there was a lot of reference to helping disabled people "fulfill their potential", which basically seemed to mean working. But there were also references to the size of the AT sector in the UK economy, how well we perform there, selling to the rest of the world. The two need not be mutually exclusive - indeed, they can be mutually reinforcing, as highlighted by Nigel Harris' discussion of Designability's co-design approach.

Inevitably, the poster children of cutting edge technology (AI! Exoskeletons! Self-Driving Cars!) cropped up. Which I'm not against by any means - with my iDRO hat on, these are exciting new technologies that are going to help us to do all sorts and have huge potential for enabling things - with my CDS hat on , though, I'm more skeptical. And this is where the underlying tension rears its head again. If we want the UK to be world leaders in tech, we need to be doing R&D where the tech is "sexy" and the world at large will want to invest. But that's not necessarily the same areas that will most benefit the lives of disabled people. 

This ties in with the wider issue that the size of the market for any given piece of AT is relatively small. Nigel Harris highlighted the need for products that have wider appeal, so that they can be sold to the mainstream as well as the specialist sectors. This also raises the larger question of accessibility - that is, whether we need to develop specialist AT and to what extent we need to ensure that technology is accessible so that it everyone can enjoy the benefits - the selective enabling issue that I was musing on a year and a bit ago.

Particularly noticeable was the lack of any representation of Disabled People Organisation's on the panel (noted by Catherine Holloway) - we had academics and industrialists, but nothing about the end user. Which communicates to me that the focus of the symposium was on the AT sector as a business, rather than on the needs of the recipients of AT. Perhaps that's unfair: or perhaps it's just an indication that one way of resolving the tension between them is to treat the two aspects separately, and this symposium was really about the manufacturers. After all, it's unreasonable to judge the activities of APPGAT on the basis of a single symposium. Nevertheless, the symposium promised to look at "how the AT sector can further contribute to our economy and society". There was a lot of the former, out rather the less of the latter, other than the need for AT to help people "fulfill their potential".

How this will work out in the Industrial Strategy remains to be seen. Maybe there is a need to address "AT as a business" and "AT as a service" separately? Going after the cutting edge is always chasing rainbows - things that were exciting and novel and exploratory become useful and hence commonplace and mundane, so the research and the attention moves on. It's good to have that cutting edge - but attention needs to be paid to the other part as well: how we get from that cutting edge to useful products and devices that actually benefit people's lives once the immediate research attention moves on. That's something that I'd like to see addressed, though I've no idea how you'd do it. 

Still, in reflecting on all this, a particular question keeps popping up in my mind: how do we enable disabled people to get involved in the AT industry? Not just as users and testers, but as designers, makers, direction-setters? How do we enable people to make their own AT, and customise their own devices, rather than just selling them specialist kit?

Anyway, those are my thoughts - you can follow APPGAT on Twitter at @AT_APPG and follow the discussion of the symposium on #ATIndustrialStrategy  .

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