The Potential of AI: An Opportunity for Cities

The rapid development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its application to everyday life represent an extraordinary opportunity, but also pose significant risks. For cities, this entails a profound evolution in the mode of governance, changes to the means of service delivery, and most notably, a transformation of neighbourhood life. These revolutionary changes can be likened to the advent of electricity to cities.

The comprehensive deployment of the Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructure that is required to support the continued development of artificial intelligence further complicates these challenges. To produce big data and improve the services available to citizens through AI, cities will need to integrate sensors, cameras and other technologies to enable the collection of data that feed AI analysis systems.

This gives rise to a number of observations. First, for a smart city to realize its full potential and ensure an improved quality of life for all its citizens, the deployment of an IoT infrastructure needs to be extensive and inclusive. Second, an IoT system ought to be accompanied by a model of governance and public policies that ensure the highest standard of ethics and social acceptability. Lastly, cities will need to re-examine their approach to governance and more specifically, reassess urban planning regulations and land-use planning practices.

Such changes are not without risks. The protection of personal data and the right to privacy are non-negligible concerns. High level security systems are required to ensure socially acceptable storage and use of data. The fundamental question is: who can or has the right to deploy and own an IoT system? A number of recent examples illustrate the risks associated with the privatization of such a system, which could compromise the protection of personal data and the right to privacy. Cities will need to ensure greater oversight thereby guaranteeing social acceptability.

A number of opportunities also emerge from such technological changes. These include, among others, the possibility to improve citizen services and the creation of new practices and approaches to reduce inequities. For an inclusive and smart city, local governments will need to adopt strategies to mitigate the digital divide. A smart city is one that does not exclusively deploy new technologies, but one that focuses on the improvement of processes to improve the quality of life of its population.

What’s more, the production of big data via an IoT system will enable a deeper comprehension and management of urban issues such as mobility, commercial activities, parks and public spaces. With an open data policy, cities can encourage the community to participate in the improvement of civic processes and citizen services. It is already conceivable to have algorithms automize decision-making. This would certainly improve the wait time for service delivery, but also complicate matters of accountability that are essential to democratic systems.

The arrival of AI to city management has the potential to provide significant direct benefits to citizens and public managers. Nevertheless, cities will have to take up the challenge to guarantee to all citizens an ethical use of AI, to ensure the security of all citizens and realize the primary objective of a smart city – an improved quality of life for all its citizens.

Featured Image © Hussein Abdallah