“All over the world, people are struggling for a life that is fully human, a life worthy of human dignity. Countries and states are often focused on economic growth alone, but their people, meanwhile, are striving for something different: they want meaningful human lives.” (Martha C. Nussbaum, 2012. Creating Capabilities, p. 1, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, UK, Harvard University Press)
From its first edition in 2012, the journey of the international conference on Universal Design has been the story of an expanding intellectual and practical movement. The aim of this movement is to put into practice the aspirations and goals of human-centred approaches to sustainable development founded on human rights, human development and equality for all, such as those encoded in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Convention on the rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
After the first meeting in Norway (Oslo, 2012), which was organised by several enlightened governmental bodies in the Scandinavian region as a forum for the exchange of views and sharing of good practice in Universal Design, the second edition in Lund in 2014 saw the entry of academia, with wide participation from across academic disciplines, setting the stage for UD practitioners, researchers and educators to connect directly and to share ideas, research and practice.
The role of academic institutions in organising the UD conference (York, 2016, Dublin, 2018 and Helsinki, 2021) has persisted across successive editions, strengthening over time, as universities have increasingly recognised and taken on board their responsibility as primary actors in working towards societies that are founded on equity, justice and sustainable development for all human beings through their research, educational and outreach activities.
The 2022 edition, held in the historic town of Brescia, Italy, marks another landmark in the journey of the UD movement, as it crosses the alps to be hosted in southern Europe for the first time. Three Italian Universities – the Universities of Brescia, Trieste, and Ca’ Foscari University of Venice – have joined forces to make this edition possible, opening up a space for conversations between researchers, educators and policy-makers in a truly multi-disciplinary vision for UD.
The title: Transforming our World for Human Development is intentionally aimed at realising broad sustainable development goals from a person-centred UD perspective by engaging delegates in a conversation across cultural, geographical, and disciplinary boundaries about what sustainable development really means. This was eloquently put by our dear colleague and friend Elio Borgonovi:
“There is much talk about renewable energies, resources and circular economies. Most of the time, however, we forget that human beings, with their characteristics and capabilities, provide the most precious renewable energy of all. Human capabilities develop with age and grow through education and experience. People flourish when they are given the chance to exercise their potential. This potential is exercised in social and natural environments when human beings can contribute with their physical, intellectual, rational and emotional participation, by people, with people and for people.” (Address delivered at the University of Brescia, December 17th, 2020).
The sessions of the 2022 edition are characterised by their multi-disciplinary and multi-perspective nature, with sessions aimed at the design of inclusive natural environments and urban spaces, communities, neighbourhoods and cities, housing, healthcare, and educational facilities, mobility and transport systems, moving on to universally-designed learning environments, work places, cultural and recreational spaces. Contributions come from 13 different countries and various continents (Africa, Australia, Central America, East Asia, Europe, North America, South Asia) once again demonstrating that this is a growing international movement.
Our special thematic session is dedicated to Universal Design and Cultural Heritage. We believe that cultural heritage is part of what makes our lives human and meaningful. Providing full access for all human beings to cultural heritage combines two fundamental values crucial for human development and flourishing: cultural heritage provides each and every person with the possibility to engage meaningfully with their cultural and historical past, and at the same time it develops the awareness in each human being of the value of conserving the past so that we can better live in and understand the present.
A distinctive characteristic of the UD conference is the coming together of academic, governmental and professional communities under one roof. Our wish and invitation for the conference is for openness to others and to perspectives and experiences that may be different from our own, letting go of professional and disciplinary barriers, engaging with each other with empathy and curiosity. The experience of being so long deprived of face-to-face interaction due to the Covid-19 pandemic has made everyone more aware of the value of coming together during live conferences, in formal and informal ways.
The professional and disciplinary diversity represented in the UD movement is what allows us to transcend current existing separations between communities of knowledge and communities of practice, as well as existing separations between academic disciplines. Only when knowledge, practice and research from different disciplines are allowed to engage meaningfully and to feed into each other in a virtuous circle, can the power of ideas and actions become truly transformational.
Brescia, September 2022
Ilaria Garofolo, University of Trieste
Giulia Bencini, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice
Alberto Arenghi, University of Brescia