Smart, sustainable and ethical cities

Il·lustració. © Susana Blasco / Descalza

Artificial intelligence systems will become more and more affordable, will become a key decision-making factor and will facilitate the management of urban complexity. The major challenge lies in ensuring their integration in accordance with the criteria of technological humanism and ethical governance.

            Barcelona 2040. Drone-taxis hover above Montjuïc in search of customers leaving the Palau Sant Jordi macro-concert. Green lights flash in the air; red lights near the ground indicate which ones are occupied. The mobile app calculates the exact position and the vehicle descends silently. Upon arrival at the destination, the drone’s landing triggers the sensor on the nearest streetlight, which lights up only when it detects movement.

GPS in self-driving cars, video cameras on every street corner and street furniture constantly distil data. This is analysed by the City Council’s “central brain”. Thanks to this, within a few years in operation, accidents have been reduced, traffic has eased and ambulances get there earlier. Rubbish collection is more efficient and street cleaning is cheaper thanks to “service robots”.

Artificial intelligence algorithms – honed over years – are now safe enough to avert serious mistakes. The internet of things has transformed the way we live, get around and work. Every second, Barcelona beats to the orders of an interconnected system that controls every single movement, and human supervision checks that everything is working properly.

(Outline of a future city taken from applied pilot tests. Before we know it, this will be a reality.)

The United Nations has estimated that the population will reach 9.8 billion people by 2050: almost 70% will live in urban areas. Artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, blockchain, quantum computing, collaborative robotics, self-driving cars and the internet of things promise to become the norm in the coming years. Will we be able to slow down climate change and create more liveable environments?

The steam engine transformed industry and ushered in the First Industrial Revolution; and electric power and the internal combustion engine brought about the Second Industrial Revolution. Economist and sociologist Jeremy Rifkin[1] declares that “history’s great economic revolutions occur when new communication technologies converge with new energy systems”.

Rifkin’s Third Industrial Revolution promotes long-term economic sustainability to address a three-fold challenge: the global economy, energy security and climate change. In 2006, he presented his theory to the European Parliament, which endorsed it.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has already been conceptually defined as the massive harnessing of the potential of emerging technologies (besides others that are already a reality, such as nanotechnology, virtual reality and cybersecurity). But that is still a long way off.

The beginnings of smart cities

In 2011, Carrer César Martinell in Sant Cugat del Vallès was considered the “first smart street” in Catalonia. Parking sensors indicated vacant spaces on a panel, a rubbish bin compacted rubbish with solar energy, a street light turned on when it detected movement and a green area measured the soil’s humidity to automate watering. These innovations were presented at the first edition of the Smart City Expo World Congress, which has been held in Barcelona since that year.

But after a decade, smart cities are still in their infancy. One of the main reasons for this is big data collection, their analysis and subsequent processing. During the pandemic, it became clear how complicated it is to deal with the current data mess in every country. There is a lack of data culture, data literacy, especially in government administration, but also in the private sector. The phrase “data is the new oil of the 21st century” is a fine slogan, but no one has trained us to integrate this fuel into our daily lives. And the main upshot is that we have a technology whose potential very few people know how to harness and, even less so, how to control.

At European level, the study Ethics of Using Smart City AI and Big Data: The Case of Four Large European Cities (The Orbit Journal, 2019) describes where smart city action has been rolled out. In Amsterdam, AI classifies citizen grievances; Helsinki launched a chat bot to facilitate parking; and in Copenhagen, there is a digital platform for data exchange.

Catalonia is committed to “proactive administration”, which consists of informing citizens what social assistance they can apply for, according to their age, economic status, level of education, etc. In 2020, Gavà City Council took part in a pilot project, Gavius, in which a virtual assistant helped to process aid quickly via mobile phone. The pilot is part of Urban Innovative Actions, a European Union initiative that funds technological innovations to move towards more sustainable cities.

Both the Government of Catalonia[2] and Barcelona City Council[3] have been developing AI strategies for a couple of years to pave the way for providing services to citizens and better manage public resources. In the summer of 2020, Barcelona City Council installed thermal cameras on beaches to monitor capacity by analysing the sand. The application – still in use – employs machine learning to compare the same image when the beach is empty and when it is full.

In July 2022, the Global Observatory of Urban Artificial Intelligence (GOUAI) and the Urban Artificial Intelligence Atlas were launched, encompassing 106 projects from 36 cities. The Atlas includes the example of MARIO, the name given to the machine learning and natural language processing algorithm that classifies queries from Barcelona’s citizens. According to municipal sources, previously 50% of requests had to be reassigned, and with AI the success rate is over 85%. Barcelona City Council has been using AI for some time now to process social assistance. On average each year, it receives 50,000 first visits for various issues: from economic problems or addictions to gender violence. More than 700 professionals manage all the cases, but an algorithm provides decision-making support and suggests the most appropriate public resources in each case.

On a global level, the Artificial Intelligence Index Report 2022 covers the latest advances in AI and also notes the mistakes made to date. From facial recognition systems that discriminate against black (or dark-skinned) people, to tools for selecting CVs that penalise women, or clinical health that is biased according to patients’ economic status. The AI Index states that “natural language processors are more capable and biased than ever”. Hope lies in the fact that ethical issues have become a recurring topic of scientific research worldwide and that legislation on AI has increased in most countries around the world. Developing smart systems is becoming cheaper and cheaper, and the training time to get them up and running has been significantly reduced. Everything points to us soon having a great deal of AI invisibly spread across our cities, and we hope such distribution is really safe too.

Trust is key

The report Big Data and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development explains that concerted action is needed to exploit the full potential of big data. Sustainable development will depend on how urban growth is managed, especially in low- and middle-income countries, where the pace of urbanisation is expected to gather momentum. Meeting housing, transport, energy, employment, education and health needs will be common challenges for all governments. To fulfil these needs, smart systems will manage the available public resources. These systems will be equipped with (past or real-time) data from sensors and mobile devices. The challenge will be how to hone them so that they really facilitate human decision-making and do not engender serious human mistakes. This is what has been defined as “technological humanism”, which aims to put technology at the service of people and not the other way around. If this is not achieved, we run the risk of losing faith in our institutions, in our governments and in the companies that serve us.

We can do nothing but trust in the technology potential that lies ahead of us. Technology is neither good nor bad. It is our use of it that results in positive or negative consequences. Government policies are needed to ensure the integrity and quality of data, and to guarantee its privacy and security. This calls for active citizen participation. Involving people from the ideation stages of AI will always exert a greater positive impact than doing so once the product or service has been designed. Ethical governance of data and AI will be key to laying the foundations for the smart cities of the next industrial revolution.

[1] Jeremy Rifkin has studied the impact of scientific and technological change on the economy, the workforce, society and the environment for decades. He has been an advisor to several governments and has written more than twenty books proposing ways to secure life on Earth, such as The Economy of Hydrogen (Tarcher, 2002).

[1] CATALONIA.AI, Artificial Intelligence Strategy of Barcelona.                               

[1] Government Measure for a Municipal Algorithms and Data Strategy for an Ethical Promotion of Artificial Intelligence.

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