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Fixing the UK’s wealth divide: flagship policy veers off-track

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Bradford, in northern England, was promised funding to improve rail services
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Every 10 to 20 minutes a train rolls into Bradford’s main station. On the platform, the driver then gets out and walks to the other end of the carriages before continuing the journey.

The time-consuming routine occurs daily because Bradford — England’s sixth biggest city — has no through-station, forcing trains to reverse to continue along the line.

Regional leaders have long demanded a solution to shortcomings in infrastructure like this one, which highlight the wealth gap between places in the north like Bradford and more affluent areas in the south.

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a landslide election in 2019 vowing to “level up” places like Bradford, it appeared poised to happen.

But two years later his government announced rail modernisation plans without the planned through-station on a proposed high-speed line between nearby Manchester and Leeds — disappointing locals.

More modest upgrades were approved instead.

It fuelled suspicions Johnson could not be trusted over the pledge.

“I was just really disappointed,” said Mandy Ridyard, finance director at Produmax, a Bradford-based aerospace engineering firm eager for better connectivity to attract workers.

“We’re asking for what the rest of Europe and the south (of England) expect,” she told AFP.

“We’re trying to catch up. So not investing… is madness really because there’s such an opportunity.”

– Short-changed –

In 2019, Johnson’s “levelling up” pledge helped his Conservatives win in more deprived, post-industrial parts of central and northern England traditionally held by the main opposition Labour party.

But critics argue there has been little tangible progress since, with some analyses showing the situation worsening.

Fresh doubt was sown this week when Johnson sacked the minister in charge of delivering the policy, before himself quitting as ruling party leader.

Mike Cartwright, of West Yorkshire’s chamber of commerce, called “levelling up” a “wonderful catchphrase or slogan” — but said there was a lack of material action.

A much-anticipated government policy paper last year was a “missed opportunity” and the region felt “short-changed” so far, he said, praising the ambition but emphasising the importance of outcomes.

The Labour leader of the city council, Susan Hinchcliffe, agreed, saying investment in places like Bradford was key “if levelling up is to mean anything”.

– ‘Forgotten’ –

Bradford and surrounding towns have received some extra resources, including “levelling up funds” and being designated an “education investment area”.

The wider West Yorkshire region also got its own directly elected mayor last year and is set for further devolution.

But as London in May saw the opening of a new £18.9 billion ($22.7 billion) cross-city rail line, Bradford locals are furious at their cancelled project.

“It just felt a bit like we’ve got forgotten about again,” said Josie Barlow, a food bank manager who received a levelling up grant to help buy the building it operates from.

She added they were “really grateful” for the £225,000 but that the city needed bigger infrastructure investment.

Bradford — once a wool-producing powerhouse — is now the fifth most income-deprived city nationwide, the government’s last poverty index in 2019 showed.

– ‘Squalor’ –

In Redcar, 70 miles (110 kilometres) northeast of Bradford, levelling up funds have helped refurbish housing previously plagued by crime.

Clare Harrigan, development director of Beyond Housing, which rents out many of the low-rise properties, called the £711,000 grant “the green shoots” of levelling up. 

“This is just an example of where it has made a difference,” she told AFP.

Sandra Cottrell, 64, who has lived in the Church Lane Estate for decades, said it had become “a mess”, and the wider region had been neglected by successive governments.

“We were living in squalor until all this started,” she said, as workers fitted insulation and landscaped the grounds.

Despite the new investment, and ambitious plans to turn the nearby Teesside Steelworks into a hub for industries including offshore wind, Cottrell is sceptical of Johnson’s lofty aims.

“I don’t believe anything he says,” she told AFP, mirroring countless polls showing most Britons now mistrust him after lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street. 

“I just think he talks a load of rubbish.”

Johnson will soon be talking as a former prime minister. Whether his signature policy lives on remains to be seen.

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Chinese city dims lights in heatwave power crunch

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China's searing heat is drying up the critical Yangtze River, with water flow on its main trunk about 51 percent lower than the average over the last five years, state media outlet China News Service reported
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A provincial capital in southwest China has dimmed outdoor advertisements, subway lighting and building signs to save energy, official announcements said, as the area battles a power crunch triggered by record-high temperatures.

The mercury has soared beyond 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in Sichuan province this week, fueling massive demand for air conditioning and drying up reservoirs in a region reliant on dams for most of its electricity.

Factories including a joint venture with Japanese car giant Toyota in provincial capital Chengdu have been forced to halt work, while millions in another city Dazhou grappled with rolling power cuts.

“Hot and muggy weather has caused the city’s electricity supply for production and daily life to be pushed to its limit,” Chengdu’s urban management authorities said in a notice on social media Thursday.

Faced with a “most severe situation”, the city — home to over 20 million people — ordered landscape illumination and outdoor advertising lights to be switched off in notices issued Tuesday, the statement said. 

Building name signs will also be darkened.

And Chengdu metro said in a video on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform that it would also turn off advertisement lights and “optimise” the temperature in stations to save energy.

Photos circulating on Weibo showed dimmed lights on metro platforms, walkways and in malls, with commuters walking in partial darkness.

The searing heat is also drying up the critical Yangtze River, with water flow on its main trunk about 51 percent lower than the average over the last five years, state media outlet China News Service reported Thursday.

Sichuan’s power woes could also have ripple effects on the wider Chinese economy — the province is a key supplier of energy generated by hydropower, including to eastern industrial powerhouses like Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

China is battling extreme weather on several fronts, with 17 people killed in a flash flood in the northwest of the country on Thursday following torrential rains.

Meanwhile, weather authorities in the eastern Jiangsu province warned drivers of tire puncture risks on Friday as the surface temperature of some roads were poised to hit 68 degrees Celsius.

The China Meteorological Administration earlier said the country was going through its longest period of sustained high temperatures since records began in 1961.

Scientists say extreme weather across the world has become more frequent due to climate change and that urgent global cooperation is needed to slow an impending disaster.

The world’s two largest emitters are the United States and China. 

But earlier this month Beijing announced it was freezing its cooperation with Washington on global warming in protest at a visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan.

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How online shopping has changed during COVID-19

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Cheap Insurance tracked 10 ways online shopping changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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How online shopping has changed during COVID-19

Chances are good that how you shop has changed significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s not just because people were stuck at home during lockdowns or transitioned to work from home. It’s also because they were increasingly seeking novelty in their products, changing brands for what was newer and more inexpensive. They were trying out more products in augmented reality before adding them to their cart, from earrings and eye shadow to new couches.

To track how our buying habits changed, Cheap Insurance collected information from a variety of government and industry sources to examine how the pandemic has impacted online shopping.

According to the Census Bureau’s Annual Retail Trade Survey (published April 2022), e-commerce generated more than $800 billion in sales in 2020, boosted partly by a huge increase in online grocery orders. Meanwhile, clothing stores saw some of the biggest plummets in revenue, losing more than 25% of sales between 2019 and 2020, Some people may have put on office-appropriate tops for their Zoom calls, but the rest were keeping our cameras off in pajamas or athleisure. Plus, people who reported in to work as essential workers were more likely to rely on uniforms or specialized clothing like scrubs that aren’t part of the general clothing market.

Continue reading to learn 10 ways COVID-19 has changed online shopping.

Woman holding phone online shopping

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E-commerce sales grew by 43% during 2020

The Annual Retail Trade Survey examines the state of retail sales, both online and at traditional points of sale. The umbrella term “e-commerce” includes all transactions online that correspond with goods or services delivered in real life, plus all the infrastructure (like internet marketing) that supports those transactions. It makes sense that people turned to e-commerce during the most locked-down year of the pandemic in the U.S., increasing these sales by an astonishing 43% in one year. People especially turned to e-commerce for things like grocery shopping and restaurant ordering that were typically more “offline.” At the same time, some industries suffered, like gas stations, bookstores, and clothing retailers.

Hands holding credit card and using laptop

Ivan Kruk // Shutterstock

Globally, people began shopping online more, but spending less

An October 2020 survey from the United Nations Conference of Trade and Development found that, between March and June 2020, online purchases increased by 6 to 10 percentage points across most product categories. However, average online monthly spending per shopper dropped markedly. Overall, Americans lost income stability and some percentage of their income during the pandemic. They may have been pushed to purchase things like groceries online if possible, but that doesn’t mean they felt confident spending as much as they did before. Those trends seem to be true worldwide as well.

Girl using a phone with online supermarket on the screen

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Online grocery shopping took off

Many other industries could fall away as nonessential during a crisis, but people still always need to eat. Grocery stores pivoted pretty quickly into pandemic mode, offering full delivery through third-party services like Instacart as well as hybrid options like curbside pickup. According to August 2021 estimates from Insider Intelligence, online grocery shopping spiked 63.9% in 2020, 12.3% in 2021, and will grow another 20.5% in 2022. In 2021, for the first time ever, more than half the U.S. population bought groceries online, per Insider Intelligence, marking a sea change for the notoriously low-margin grocery industry. Despite food prices increasing amid inflation, it seems some shoppers may stick with online grocery shopping, whether out of convenience or lingering concerns as the pandemic enters a less-acute phase.

Woman with shipping box with shoes, phone, and credit card

kitzcorner // Shutterstock

More consumers are switching brands

In a survey conducted by McKinsey between February and March 2022, 46% U.S. consumers said they shopped a different brand in 2022 compared to 33% who did so in 2020. One reason is inflation, which has raised prices for almost everything. When money is tight, it makes sense to buy what is cheaper, whether that’s the generic brand of tomato sauce or a new kids’ clothing brand showing up on your Instagram feed. Today, consumers have a more “normal-seeming” selection of brands available as well, now that many of the worst supply chain issues have passed. People are also switching brands in pursuit of novelty to try out something new or different.

Woman holding iPad with augmented furniture in display

RossHelen // Shutterstock

Shoppers are testing accessories, furniture, and more with augmented reality

In October 2020, Harvard Business Review reported on some of the ways augmented reality is changing the retail experience online and in stores. Many clothing retailers already offered some form of virtual try-on where a “similar” virtual body was used to model a brand of clothes. Now, others have made the leap to AR, placing images of earrings or beauty products on customers’ faces and ears in situ. It’s also a great way to try out furniture, letting customers simulate where to place a new couch or table in their living room. IBM’s 2020 Retail Index Report found that this kind of technology has moved consumers five years closer to a future anchored in online shopping.

Woman is holding credit card and using laptop

Yuganov Konstantin // Shutterstock

Out-of-stock messages are more common

With supply chain disruptions caused by everything from a lack of dock workers and shipping containers to factory shutdowns, shoppers became all too familiar with “out of stock” notifications on their favorite websites. Shoppers saw 60 billion out-of-stock messages between March 2020 and February 2022, according to Adobe’s Digital Economy Index. The rate of these notifications has increased from 1 in 200 items to 1 in 59. During the height of pandemic panic shopping, photos of empty grocery shelves took over social media. But with the long tail of the supply chain, that phenomenon now stretches into clothing, video games, and much more.

Smiling young woman using mobile phone

Ground Picture // Shutterstock

An estimated half of all US adults made a purchase on social media in 2022

Social media platforms like Facebook let users buy some goods directly within their dedicated apps. On TikTok, users can buy through the e-commerce platform Shopify. On Instagram, certain users can sell goods using its proprietary Checkout service. And of course, there are still countless “click the link” and “store in bio” posts across social media, directing users to an account’s proprietary e-commerce site.

Overstock website homepage

Casimiro PT // Shutterstock

People bought a lot more furniture online

People have spent more time in their homes than almost ever before during the last few years. Many have built new home offices and outfitted entire outdoor spaces to shift their activities toward the safety of home. Furniture and home furnishings saw the largest increase in e-commerce sales between 2019 and 2020, increasing by more than $41 billion, according to 2020 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s honestly surprising that any industry saw an increase from 2019 to 2020, when sales across the board were depressed. But this is e-commerce sales of furnishings, not overall sales including stores.

Smiling man with tablet and credit card at home

Ground Picture // Shutterstock

People around the globe plan to keep shopping online

Some in the industry have wondered if pandemic online shopping habits were temporary, caused by obstacles like lockdown. It’s true more shoppers are returning to brick-and-mortar stores, but overall, online shopping has also remained steady. Respondents to a United Nations Conference on Trade and Development survey of around 3,700 consumers in nine rising economies expressed a desire to continue the online shopping habits they formed during the pandemic. That includes shopping from many different retailers, including through social media apps, and a different relationship to brand loyalty than prior to the pandemic.

Woman trying virtual shoes through AR store app

Andrey_Popov // Shutterstock

Omnichannel shopping appears to be the new normal

From the growing body of data, it’s clear that online shopping has reached a new level of influence in Americans’ daily lives. Three in 4 U.S. consumers are interacting with brands through multiple online and in-store channels, according to a McKinsey survey conducted in February and March 2022. There are some ways this could be harmful, especially to businesses like restaurants and neighborhood boutiques that have relied on foot traffic and in-person services. But others, such as grocery stores, have been able to pivot to what consumers need most at a given time. And with in-app shopping on social media as well as AR try-ons, the next generation of online shopping may be unfolding.

This story originally appeared on Cheap Insurance and was produced and
distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

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From easy-open lids to magnetic button shirts: 10 examples of inclusive design

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Foothold Technology examined some examples of inclusive design found in everyday life created for people of all backgrounds and body types.
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From easy-open lids to magnetic button shirts: 10 examples of inclusive design

In everyday life, we’re surrounded by items and facilities that people have designed for us. While many of these things and places are suitable for able-bodied, neurotypical people, others may not find it so easy to use the same grocery store shelves, public parks, or lace-up sneakers. This is where universal or inclusive design comes into play. In this field, designers seek to include as many users as possible by making small changes that affect the accessibility of items or places.

Foothold Technology, a provider of human services software, examined some examples of inclusive design found in everyday life created for people of all backgrounds and body types. From the public beaches of Vancouver to the cereal aisle, these designs seek to close the inequality gap that was created when previous designs did not consider all potential users.

Even if you’re able-bodied and neurotypical, you may realize some of the products on this list would be useful for you—wouldn’t it be nice if certain things were easier to open even with one hand, or if there were a stable path to walk on the beach? Accessible design can make life easier for almost everyone by removing bottlenecks in the design of everyday items.

Customer using credit card

mavo // Shutterstock

Credit card designed with different shapes

In the past, it was easy to tell which way to insert a credit card because of the raised text on the surface. Newer cards don’t have this feature anymore, and cards with chips may have different orientations.

In October 2021, Mastercard introduced a new feature where its cards have differently shaped notches on the side so users can tell which card they’re using and which way to insert it by touch. Maybe one day, the U.S. will also have paper money with different colors or shapes so low-vision users can tell them apart, an approach taken by many other countries.

Person putting on velcro sneakers

Dusan Petkovic // Shutterstock

Easy on-off and single-only shoes

Whether you work on your feet all day or you’re one of the majority of people whose feet are slightly different sizes, footwear can be a challenge for many. For those with various disabilities, even putting on or taking off shoes can be difficult—one that isn’t solved by having a full wardrobe of only clogs or sandals.

Today, “easy on-and-off” shoes are a whole category available from many major shoe brands, addressing the need for full shoes like sneakers that are designed to bend open and self-close when the feet step down. Brands also make lines with just one shoe, or a pair made of any two different sizes users need.

Woman using smartphone in grocery store

ezhenaphoto // Shutterstock

Cereal boxes with playback information

In a pilot program announced in August 2021, Kellogg’s is trying a new kind of cereal box printed with a special code to help customers with vision impairments to understand allergen information.

Food is ubiquitous—eating safely is the lowest possible level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Between food allergies, medical intolerances, and conditions like diabetes, many people need to make sure what they’re buying is safe to eat. With a high-contrast black-and-white code that’s smartphone readable from up to 3 meters away, the new Kellogg’s boxes should help blind customers choose safe products.

Woman with prosthetic hand holding bottles while on laptop

shurkin_son // Shutterstock

Easy-open product lids

Skin care brand Olay is leading the way by offering a line of products released in November 2021 that have easy-open lids made with wide plastic wings. There are many conditions that can make it too difficult to securely grip and open beauty products and medicines. You may have also seen pill bottles with a plastic plate sticking up from the lid to make it easier to grip.

Wheelchair racer on track stadium

sportpoint // Shutterstock

Easy-grip deodorant

Deodorant is easy to take for granted, but the product is sneakily full of coordination and motor ability challenges upon further reflection. Almost every brand requires two hands. The cylinders are fairly narrow and difficult to grip without fine motor control.

In May 2021, Degree introduced new packaging designed to let customers avoid these design bottlenecks. There’s a wider base with indents for gripping, a hooked lid to allow easy hanging and removal, and a wider application area so you need fewer swipes. 

Blind woman with earbuds using smartphone

Chansom Pantip // Shutterstock

Easier to read messaging apps

Keen-eyed observers over a certain age will remember when Windows 95 had a high contrast mode with large text and stark bold colors. Those same principles flow through to today: The internet has a whole set of accessibility guidelines for web design.

Makers of messaging apps used by company websites, for example—when a pop-up window invites you to chat with a representative—should follow these guidelines so the text is legible for all kinds of users, including those using screen readers. A screen reader is an assistive device that reads text and image descriptions on a website or app aloud. This may seem straightforward, but many sites and apps have code or special characters that can garble up the flow.

Entrepreneur in wheelchair reading message on smart phone

Drazen Zigic // Shutterstock

Smartphone display features

AARP has a great resource list for different smartphone accessibility settings. These include apps that turn everyday sounds and talking into live captioning for deaf or hard-of-hearing users as well as those with auditory processing issues.

You can also scale the text size up or down on your smartphone, though individual apps may not cooperate. One of the major breakthroughs for smartphone accessibility was just a general design principle. Website coders decided it made sense to query what size screen a user had, and serve up a mobile site with much larger text that scales to the narrower phone screen.

Paralympic games wheelchair rugby sign

Marco Ciccolella // Shutterstock

Updated signage for people with disabilities

As an art project and public inspiration, Decathlon, the world’s largest sporting goods retailer, started updating the symbols of wheelchair users on their handicapped parking spots in November 2021. The new signs were inspired by the Canadian Paralympic team from 2020.

The signs show users engaged in sports like wheelchair rugby, where the culture surrounding the sport has significantly changed from or even surpassed the able-bodied version. Decathlon’s aim is to vary and diversify the image associated with wheelchair users to represent more experiences.

Mobility mat on beach

RacheeLynn // Shutterstock

Surface design for outdoor public spaces

Parks are one of the biggest battlegrounds for people with disabilities: They’re designed for the larger public, but their setting in nature gives stubborn bureaucrats an excuse not to make accessibility changes.

Sometimes, existing facilities like walking paths have narrow gating that doesn’t allow for wheelchair access. Wheelchair users who visit beaches often can’t leave the path even to access the public restroom because it’s across a sandy stretch. Park designers are working to make parks more accessible with signage, pathways, structures, and more.

Young girl in a wheelchair at the park with her mother

Mix Tape // Shutterstock

Adaptive clothing

Adaptive clothing includes everything from tearaway clothing options to garments designed to be worn while seated. People with sensory issues may want clothing made of the softest materials, with special seams and without any tags.

In the sitcom “Speechless,” two moms of kids with disabilities started a business to make adaptive clothing after realizing their children were far from the only ones. Now, large companies like Target and Zappos are getting into the market. Brands that offer these products can secure lifelong customers by making small changes to their lines.

This story originally appeared on Foothold Technology and was produced and
distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

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