BUDD-e: a project to support citizens with visual impairments

The Budd-e research project is a programme committed to improving the quality of life of visually impaired citizens to help to build a more equal and inclusive society by taking advantage of technological innovations.


The SARS-COV2 pandemic has significantly impacted everyone’s life, changing our habits and how we interact with others and our immediate environment. Among those most affected are people with visual impairments, who are considered to be at greater risk of contagion due to their need for tactile contact with people and spaces to be able to move and orientate themselves more easily.
Therefore, without touch, these people have seen their autonomy and quality of life become increasingly limited.

Isolation was even more severe for those with severe degrees of visual impairment. There are around 2 million such people in Italy, while at the global level they represent around 4% of the population. It is a significant “slice” of society for which technology could play a significant role in improving quality of life.

How can technological innovation be exploited to ensure independent and safe access to various spaces such as shopping centres, museums, hospitals or even athletics tracks?

Improving the quality of life of citizens with visual impairments through the opportunity to enjoy these and other spaces independently and safely is the ambitious objective of the multidisciplinary “BUDD-e” (Blind-assistive Autonomous Drive Device) research project, which was among the winners of the Polisocial Award (2021 Edition) – the Politecnico di Milano’s social responsibility programme financed with “5×1000” funds.

BUDD-e is an innovative person-robot system that incorporates a self-driving robot and was conceived based on the specific needs of blind or partially sighted people and the design of spaces made accessible thanks to the functionalities of the robot. BUDD-e will contribute to building a more equal and inclusive civil society.
BUDD-e will be capable of guiding and supporting blind or partially sighted people during their day-to-day activities – including the possibility of transporting goods – while maintaining the required speed and/or trajectory, by transmitting relevant information on the available routes via audible signals, thus avoiding collisions.

The research project – which will last 15 months and is coordinated by Prof. Marcello Farina from the Department of Electronics, Information and Bioengineering and Prof. Emanuele Lettieri from the Department of Management, Economics, and Industrial Engineering – is characterised by the integration of several distinct areas of expertise within the Politecnico di Milano, ranging from engineering to management economics, from architecture to service design.

The research group may rely on the involvement of partners such as the UICI (Italian Union of the Blind and Partially Sighted), the ASST Niguarda Hospital regional healthcare agency, the non-profit organisations ICM (Milan Institute for the Blind Foundation), DISABILINCORSA, Tactile Vision and GSD Non Vedenti Milano (NVM) amateur sports group, as well as ASP Golgi Redaelli, YAPE S.r.l. and POLIMISPORT.
Lastly, the project will be conducted under the clinical and medical supervision of Dr Luigi Piccinini from the Scientific Institute for Research, Hospitalization and Health Care (IRCCS) Medea.

The team of researchers from the Department of Management, Economics, and Industrial Engineering, headed by Prof. Emanuele Lettieri and Mr. Andrea Di Francesco will be committed to assessing the social impact generated by the BUDD-e project through the development of a specific methodology that allows the relevant details to be understood.


For further information you might refer to the website of the project BUDDE-e and to the website of the Interdepartmental Laboratory “Engineering for Sport” (E4Sport).

Work inclusion: knowing we are all different increases competitive potential

Can we still accept that in-clusion is often replaced by re-clusion? It is not just a matter of ethics: acknowledging that each worker has a potential value for the company becomes a lever for configuring increasingly competitive production systems.


Guido J.L. Micheli, Associate Professor of Industrial Plants Engineering and Management
School of Management Politecnico di Milano

In everything, there are minimum time periods necessary for an evolution to start having an effect. In our Country, the constitution states that Italy is a “Republic […] founded on labour”; however, it is only in the last few decades that the problem of job inclusion of disabled workers, who – except in very rare cases – do not have the “standard” characteristics that companies look for in their employees, has begun to be addressed in some way.

To put it simply, the process is currently moving on two fronts. On the one hand, a large number of companies are obliged by law to employ disabled workers; on the other hand, there are companies (type B social cooperatives) whose ultimate aim is to prepare disabled people (also called “disadvantaged” in this case) for work. In the large number of companies that are obliged to employ disabled staff, the very frequent outcome is either the hiring of a person who is then “isolated” in tasks of little value to the company itself (in other words, hired but not included) or the deliberate choice to pay the penalties attached to not hiring, which are considered paradoxically “sustainable” when compared with the burden of managing a person considered of little value.
Why is this? The motivation is, after all, quite simple: companies are used to and want to continue working in situations where every activity, machine, equipment, place, process is designed for “standard” people. Every difference is experienced as a source of inefficiency.

It is undoubtedly true that the initial and continuous training of disabled workers is in some cases significantly higher, but why? One of the answers is easily identifiable: the effort in training/preparing disabled workers for any job task is linked to the very purpose of such training, i.e., to provide them with the same skills as non-disabled workers. In other words, even the training that companies design and implement is not inclusive, but rather aimed at bringing disabled workers into line with others.

What should be done to change the status quo?

A profound cultural change is needed. Companies need to critically study their processes, in order to identify those aspects of them that can be carried out with “different” characteristics; by doing so, these “different characteristics” no longer require an effort to be adapted and included, but become naturally functional, and therefore naturally included.

This type of analysis is what social co-operatives (manufacturing or agricultural companies in the true sense of the word, which primarily employ disabled workers) must undertake on a daily basis in order to understand, for example, how an assembly process can be “subdivided and supported” in order to be efficiently and effectively carried out by a wide range of disabled workers.

This focus on processes has the secondary effect of simplifying them, and therefore reducing errors, which translates into a reduction in waste and an overall increase in efficiency.
So, being aware that everyone in the company is “different” can become an important lever for change: every activity, machine, equipment, place, process, which used to be designed for “standard” people, can finally be designed in an worker-centric and non-standard-centric way.

What is the point of the flexibility of the components of production systems (machines, lines, roles, …), which has been much sought after in recent decades, if it is not then used on an ongoing basis to review processes and tasks in the search for an ever better overall system configuration? If this were the approach, inclusion would no longer be sought as such.
We are realising that inclusion cannot be forced: if it is imposed, as is the legislative approach, it turns into reclusion in many cases. Instead, acknowledging that each worker has her/his own potential value for the company becomes a lever to configure production systems and make them increasingly competitive.

After all, who among us has never thought “I have the right person in mind for this”? It is simply a matter of starting to acknowledge the individual strengths of all people – including those with disabilities.
Let’s start here. And let’s not close our eyes: some companies already do!

Inclusion: shaping a better society for all

Conversation with Donatella Sciuto, Vice-Rector of Politecnico di Milano


Decreasing the gender gap is part of the 2030 agenda of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including in relation to the prevalence of women in STEM subjects. Disciplines that provide very high employment rates but are still predominantly the preserve of men. What are the factors that are causing this gap?

The factors are diverse and can in my view be traced to three dimensions: individual, context and culture. By individual I mean personal attitudes; by context I mean the environment in which girls grow up – the family, the school, the community closest to them; by culture I mean that of a country or geographical area, which with its own rules can influence individual choices.

Even today, there is still a distinction in children’s play between male and female roles: from pre-school onwards, girls are used to being confronted with certain models, and even those who have grown up with different models when they are with their peers tend to conform to the “expected” behaviour so that they are not marginalised. And growing up things do not change, because in adolescence group identity is even stronger.

At the level of family context, gender socialisation is usually favoured and the same applies to exposure to science, mathematics or technology: girls tend to be less exposed and therefore less interested in these topics, probably also by virtue of group identity. There is a lack of role models, which at this stage of growth are of a different kind.
Girls often have a lower level of risk-taking than boys, which is why families tend to protect them more. In some contexts, scientific careers are considered more “risky” than others, or less appropriate for girls because they are male-dominated, thus fuelling the fear of a hostile working environment.

At the cultural level, there are countries where the study of scientific disciplines is more widespread, such as some Asian countries, and girls are consequently more inclined to study them, even if this does not necessarily lead to scientific careers. In Europe and the Anglo-Saxon countries, the study of science is less widespread, with the exception of the Scandinavian countries where gender equality is more deeply rooted at all levels.

Against this background, what role should universities play in reducing the gender gap in these studies?

We can do a lot, and from the earliest stages of schooling: by working with schools we can show that science and technology have no “gender” and are fun and interesting for everyone.
With this purpose in mind, in recent years the Politecnico di Milano has organised science lessons and workshops for primary school children in collaboration with Focus Junior magazine.

To create awareness and encourage orientation on 11 February, the UN’s day dedicated to celebrating women in science, we published a video to help girls consider engineering as a university path.  The video is now being distributed in the secondary schools we are in contact with. In fact we work a lot with secondary schools, and in particular with physics and mathematics teachers to discuss engineering-oriented teaching. We also organise Summer School Tech Camps for third and fourth year students. Tech Camps take place in English, last one week and involve the development of a technology project (theory and practice) which are presented to the families.

At our university we have also decided to support girls with specific scholarships. The Girls@Polimi programme aims to encourage their enrolment in engineering degree courses where they are less represented, by offering additional financial support funded by companies: in the first year we had 2, in the second 12 and now 20. Then there are scholarships for female master’s degree students, and mentoring courses, again in collaboration with companies.

Finally, and this is a prerequisite, in addition to guidance and support, universities must ensure equality and ban all forms of discrimination.

In Europe, our country has a higher percentage of female PhD graduates, in total and also in STEM areas, more than Spain, the UK, France and Germany (*Ministry of Education report on women’s careers in academia, March 2020). Does this mean that we are moving in the right direction as far as women’s representation is concerned or is this just a first step?

We are only at the beginning. Looking at the data more closely, one realises that it is good because STEM subjects often include biology and medicine, which have never had the problem of a gender gap. Let’s use biomedical engineering as an example: at our university, female students in this course account for 50%. However, in other areas there are very few women, such as electronics and IT, where the female rate is less than 10%, despite the fact that IT professions are in great demand. At doctoral level, the figures improve because we have a lot of female foreign students who decide to study here, so the international presence reduces the gap.

It is true that we are in a moment in history when there is awareness of the problem and a renewed interest on the part of companies to reduce the gender gap, in line with the SDGs, but reality shows that it is the pay gap that is still important, and it occurs from the first job and with equal grades in studies.

In order to help women professionally, it is essential to eliminate the pay gap, and for their development consider them from the perspective of diversity.
An increase in female representation is therefore relative if it relates only to certain functions and areas of the company, which are usually more humanistic.
There is still a lot to be done in this respect and the right place in the job market still has to be won.

Apart from gender issues, what are the challenges of inclusion that you think are most pressing for the research and university sector?

First of all, support the careers of women. As one moves up the academic hierarchy, there are fewer and fewer women, as was found in the report by the Italian CRUI (Conference of Italian University Rectors). Women’s careers should not be damaged by caring duties and motherhood, for example. We have created an economic bonus to support the return of female researchers after maternity leave and support them in resuming their scientific research activities.

Apart from this, I believe the issue of inclusion must be addressed in universities in the full extent: the priority is to create the conditions for welcoming diversity in all its forms.

We are doing this with the “POP” (Polytechnic Equal Opportunities) programme, which aims to ensure a study and work environment that respects gender identities, different abilities, cultures and backgrounds. As an international university, it is also important to learn to live with people from different cultures, and this is a path to which we must all commit ourselves, lecturers, students and administrative staff.  In order to achieve these objectives, in last year’s reorganisation of the services at the Politecnico we wanted to create an organisational unit to follow all aspects, called Equal Opportunities, within the Campus Life area.

People should not be judged by appearances, but by merits.  Only by eliminating any kind of stereotype or prejudice can we build an inclusive world for all.