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Universal design and the pledge to Leave No One Behind

Universal design offers a fundamentally different approach to understanding who users are. Working with universal design and the fundamental view of humanity that the concept represents has incredible potential, not least for those who are quick enough to take the lead.

Universal design is a value-based concept that can be interpreted and used in vision, process, and solution. The term was originally defined by Ron Mace as a reaction to the fact that “accessible solutions” most often resulted in special solutions for people with disabilities.

Thus, many users experienced being exposed and stigmatised by having to use special entrances, seats, means of transport, etc. Although this was not the intention, the result was often solutions that defined the users in “them and us” or “with and without disabilities”. Universal design is a value-based concept that recognises the fact that, as humans, we live with different abilities, chronic or temporary, but it is a common condition that we all share. There is no “them and us”, there is only one “us”.

Universal design represents a basic view of humanity which recognises that diversity in functional ability and needs is a basic condition. It also means that when we have to accommodate great diversity – and sometimes opposing needs – in solutions, we can interpret universal design in two ways: Either the individual solution, which accommodates everyone whenever possible, and if this is not possible without resulting in the lowest common denominator, the universal solution can be a catalogue of solutions. For example, this could entail designing three ways to get into a building or across a road, and it is the catalogue of those three solutions that together make up the universal design solution. Because diversity in user needs requires diversity in solutions.

It is crucial that all three solutions are worthy and equal; that no one is sent on a detour or in through the back entrance and past all the garbage, but that all three solutions provide an experience of being equally included.

When working with universal design, one always considers a real breadth of user needs and must ensure that older people with balance difficulties, children of all ages, parents with strollers, tourists with rolling luggage, young people in wheelchairs, single fathers with impaired vision and students with difficulty orienting themselves are all considered in the design process. So that everyone is included, and no one is left behind.

Our goal is to leave no one behind

Ensuring that no one is left behind is also the essence of the recurring pledge of the Sustainable Development Goals: Leave No One Behind (LNOB), an absolutely crucial and fundamental principle of the intention of the Sustainable Development Goals. It is necessary that everyone is involved in sustainable development, both because the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals must not create a new “them and us”, and because all resources and competencies must be involved in the development if it is to succeed.

Sustainable development is only sustainable if everyone participates and contributes.

When as a citizen, a company or a public institution you work purposefully with the Sustainable Development Goals, it is important to constantly ask yourself: “Have we left anyone behind?” Have we ensured that everyone is included, that everyone can contribute, that all resources and competencies have been employed? Whether you are working with a single goal, several goals or with the relationships between multiple Sustainable Development Goals, decisions and initiatives must be quality assured against the Leave No One Behind pledge.

All resources and competencies must be employed so that we can live up to the 2030 agenda and work meaningfully with the Sustainable Development Goals. It is therefore important to find solutions that contribute to everyone being able to participate. In this context, universal design can act as a lever to ensure compliance with the LNOB agenda. Universal design is not only a solution, but to a large extent also a means; a means that can help formulate the vision and value of a project, ensure the quality of a process and ultimately assess and clarify a solution. This is because the concept’s fundamental view of humanity offers an understanding of the relationship between needs and solution, which implies that diversity in user needs requires diversity in solutions. Additionally, the values-based understanding of both problem and solution can be applied in all steps of the scale, in all sectors and in planning as well as design.

The urban space and movement through the city’s small and large spaces and the traffic that connects the city are the prerequisite for us all to live an equal life. Living an everyday life needs to be manageable, and it is crucial for equal participation that the choice to participate is our own and not one that is made in advance by a non-inclusive design approach. Everyday life is not divided into professional sectors, but lived across them and in the synergy between them. We travel from our home, through the city, to the station or the bike, to the studio or workplace, which we must be able to get into and around. We go out for lunch, attend meetings and summer parties, visit the library or the gym, the cinema or go out for a meal with friends before we return to our homes. Everyday life is a fluid movement through the city and the spaces that we plan, build and live in. It requires interdisciplinary knowledge and collaboration to ensure that the entire chain of sub-elements of everyday life is inclusive and meets the high diversity of user needs that is the reality when everyone has to participate. Universal design offers a principle- and value-based framework for defining, communicating, discussing, and evaluating the quality of both individual and coherent solutions.

If the many nuances of user diversity are to be included in the process, it is necessary to look beyond each detail or sub-element, such as a ramp or width of a door, and instead think more holistically and discuss the overall solution on a larger scale. In that respect, universal design can be included as a basic value-based concept that adds quality to the project and a common quality framework to the project and the collaboration.

It’s all about planning

Universal design can be understood and operationalised as value, process and solution. If a builder incorporates universal design as a core value in the project right from the get-go, it will define choices, priorities and decisions throughout the process. We know that this strengthens the quality and level of inclusion in the finished building. In the same way, one can work with universal design as a key parameter throughout the process and thus ensure that the process, competencies, user participation, collaboration, expert knowledge, dialogue and decisions along the way are shaped by a universal design approach from when the first line is drawn until commissioning. Last but not least, the detailing in both individual solutions and the “catalogue of solutions” can always be quality assured by a universal design principle. And at all three levels and throughout all stages of the project, one can always compare decisions and choices with the pledge to “Leave No One Behind” – have we ensured that no one is left behind?

Naturally, it takes knowledge and skills to ensure that you have ensured equal inclusion of as many as possible and thus also drawn on knowledge of the real and tremendous diversity in user needs. For universal design and other significant and crucial parameters of the building, it takes knowledge and skills to develop a good solution, also so that as many people as possible are included on an equal basis. Universal design is a values-based design approach that can strengthen both equal inclusion and sustainable development towards the Sustainable Development Goals’ 2030 agenda.

This article was originally published in Trafik & Veje Issue 2021/06 (in Danish), pages 11-13 and is available here.



• Universal design was first formulated by American architect Ron Mace and has since been adopted by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as a guiding principle.

• The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by the world’s heads of state and government at the UN summit in New York on 25 September 2015.

• The Bevica Foundation’s Universal Design Hub (UDH) disseminates interdisciplinary knowledge about universal design and about universal design as a lever for the Sustainable Development Goals’ Leave No One Behind agenda. Among other things, the UDH facilitates an interdisciplinary research network as well as an interdisciplinary PhD and postdoc network.


Figure 1: The relationship between Universal Design and the Leave No One Behind mindset. Illustration: Camilla Ryhl

Figure 2: Schandorffs Plads in Oslo
Photo: Østengen and Bergo.