The Impact of AI-Enabled Smart Cities

I’m the type of traveler that explores new cities by getting lost, to the chagrin of Google and Apple maps. As more urban centers become connected with AI, resulting in an increasing number of pedestrians looking down, few are left to discover hidden haberdasheries and coffee houses. This was the topic of Dr. Annelien Smets talk last month at the IEEE International Smart Cities Conference. The researcher cautioned civic planners about making their municipalities too smart and interpersonal. “Most of the time we know where to go and how to get there, or at least our phone does. We are so used to having all information at our fingertips that we’re no longer used to searching things…but that triggers a very different state of mind. We’re goal-oriented—there is no room for the unknown,” exclaimed Smets.

While Smets’ emotional sentiments are nostalgically understandable, I recently became aware of a groundbreaking study on how AI bolsters citizen engagement. Dr. Julien Carbonnell’s book, “Democracy Studio: Practical guide to artificial intelligence on citizen engagement” analyzes three leading countries in the field of smart urbanization, – Taiwan, Israel, and Estonia. Dr. Carbonnell shared with me some of his experiences in the field. “I’ve been refining my collaborative management methodology for 10 years, taking various roles in the stakeholders of a city building: non-profit associations to sound out inhabitants of different districts, a think tank with private business owners to build a future-oriented project for my hometown and influence local politics, the real estate company asked for specific visions for land management and a very grounded business model from the existing housing market, and the startups offered that possibilities to experience new business models, trying to reach the support from investors and fast prototyping digital projects,” he outlines. “Once I understood how ML works, I built my own algorithms to analyze citizen engagement on smart cities and started to present it to some fellow researchers, or entrepreneurs of civic technologies and smart cities. The feedback has been very enthusiastic and so I kept pushing my AI models forward by finally coding two computer simulations from my data analysis which allows me to make some more inferences outside of my datasets,” Carbonnell stated.

I nudged him to elaborate on his findings in the varied markets. “My three case studies Taiwan, Israel and Estonia are some of the most advanced digital democracies in the world, with a high penetration rate of technology.” He then proceeded to breakdown his findings, “Taiwan is the number one provider of micro-components in the world, making its industry essential to the smart-phones’ and computers’ global markets. The population benefits an internet penetration rate of more than 83% overall.” He was most impressed by the Holy Land as “science and technology is one of Israel’s most developed fields: the state spent the highest ratio in the world of its GDP in civil research and development in 2015. Local companies, students and citizens benefit from many public and private tech hubs to support innovation.” Remarkably the Baltic nation of Estonia has some of the highest rates of online usage with “98% of all banking transactions and public interaction happening online.”

Carbonnell links the fact that all three countries are small, recently independent, and bordered by hostile neighbors, as the response to a common investment in “tech, science, and education, due to a lack of other natural resources than the human one to exploit autonomously.” He sees this development as survival, “the fast transition to democracies sustained by free-market economies was urged by the necessity to support their existence as independent nations on the sidelines of robust less democratic regimes at their borders.” He further breaks down the contribution of having a strong public-private partnership. “In the three cases, the first customer, in crucial need of innovation, was the State: the public sector ordered a deep refurbishment or reconstruction of main infrastructures and public services. This State transformation created many opportunities for local entrepreneurs to develop companies dedicated to filling the demand in innovation, new technology, scientific research, and education. This dynamic has set the basis of a service economy with the best technicality levels and financial support to innovation. Secondly, the government helps companies reach global markets since they tend to communicate together on their achievement,” the researcher exclaims.

As SmartCities are still in their infancy, Carbonnell observed various deployment strategies of disruptive technologies to guide future instillations: “What has made the success of Taiwan, Israel and Estonia is to have invested in human resources and education to build their contemporary societies. As a result, a wide part of the population is aware of science and technology, works on research and innovation both into the academic and the private sectors, and the population is conscious that it needs to keep evolving and implementing new technologies to support their ideal position in the globalization phenomena.” He remarked that the communal altruistic benefits often outweigh commercial interest. “This is a mindset which is lacking in the oldest free-market economies and democracies nowadays, like the USA, Europe, or Japan. This mindset does not mean that there is less fail in experimentations and early adoptions. The process of innovation and startups is the same everywhere and requires a lot of trials and errors before it gives satisfying results. For that reason it can’t be otherwise than a collective process where stakeholders of the same ecosystem share the risks and the benefits together. Being a small national people in terms of demography, and having the consciousness of sharing a common destiny, helps in creating cohesion among the population, and so being naturally committed to its national success,” the researcher professes.

I pressed Carbonnell on his opinion regarding the impact of the pandemic on his findings. “What I can say from a comparison in between before and after pandemic ways of work, is that I look like less of an alien since there are more digital nomads now, and more people are available to meet and work online. I would say that the pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation but I have no idea if this will be temporary or last for longer, quipped the social scientist. He added, “All kinds of automation are great, BUT a city is about satisfying the quality of life of its residents before everything. Integrated dashboards with AI and robots, and tech-supported decision makings are a life-long technical dream of all generations of urban professionals, engineers, architects, but most of the people would agree that there would not be worse governance than the one of scientist government. For the simple reason that humans are sensitive entities more than rational ones, highly unpredictable and so far never completely understood by any science.” When commenting on devices like Amazon’s Astro robot, Carbonell reminded me of one of my favorite authors, “Somehow this is just an extension of the famous laws of robotics published by Asimov in 1950: robots must be programmed to support human life, and not the contrary.”

Reprinted by permission.