AI Urban Design

What are smart cities?

Smart Cities


To understand smart cities it is important to understand the history of cities. Hundreds of years ago, cities grew out of a need for community centers. In agrarian communities, people would bring their goods to towns to trade with others in what began as a simple form of commerce. The economy that drove these early towns was built from the top down.

Over time, port towns grew large as the seas were conquered. Shipping became the dominant means of moving goods over long distances. The economy was driven by sea trade and fortunes were built in shipping. These towns grew as they were not only the access points for goods, but they were also the centers of employment for a work force that was very slowly shifting from rural to urban context.

With the first industrial revolution and the creation of the steam engine, railroads were born and were the economic engine drivers. Cities no longer had to be coastal but were able to move inland as railroads stretched out along the countryside. With the second industrial revolution, economic growth was spurred by the exploitation of fossil fuels. Throughout the 20th century, cars, trucks, and factory-based manufacturing were the hallmarks of economic development. This growth led to the exploration and utilization of coal, petroleum, and then nuclear power.

The populations of cities exploded, but, as the urban centers grew, the infrastructure failed to keep pace with the socio-economic demands of the populations. Automobiles, trains, shipping, factories, energy generation, water processing, consumer appliances—the development of all these essential factors were pushed at a blinding pace. Developed nations focused primarily on economic growth with little to no consideration for the damage that this growth was causing to the ecosystem.

With the advent of artificial intelligence and some amazing breakthroughs in deep learning, it’s now time to think about the cities of the future that are more efficient and sustainable. Smart cities that are able to react and adapt to the environmental changes this shifting landscape of future brings.

Source: YouTube

What are smart cities?

A smart city is municipal framework composed by data-driven decisions powered by AI and IoT. The decisions are guided by artificial intelligence, taking the inconsistency—the “human” factor—out of the equation for the betterment of the community and the ecosystem.

A smart city is made up of various technologies, including information and communication technology (ICT). As part of this framework, an intelligent network of connected devices collects data using sensors and transmits it to the cloud, which allows it to communicate with other assets in the ecosystem. In a smart city, the ultimate goal is to maximize quality of life for citizens, use resources more efficiently, reduce costs, and improve sustainability. In this way, data collected from connected devices will be thoroughly analyzed to gain better insight into the services offered throughout the city, with the goal of making the entire system more efficient. In a smart city, robots and physical machines are inseparable. Embodied AI takes a deeper look at these and explores how they can fit into real-world environments. Unlike Internet AI, it focuses on learning through interaction with the surrounding environment, rather than learning from static datasets. An agent trained with Embodied AI can see (Computer Vision), speak (NLP), navigate and interact with the environment (Reinforcement Learning), and reason (General Intelligence) at the same time. Embedded AI benefits some of the applications that we use in our daily lives today, such as autonomous driving cars and personal assistants.

Source: YouTube

The 21st century is seeing a wave of realization regarding the environmental devastation of previous eras, and with it, a push toward a global sustainability. Whereas in the past, both nations and individuals judged their successes against economic factors, the realization of the havoc caused by that short-sightedness has created a shift in perspective: The desire is for a global economy that serves the population laterally rather than vertically. Wealth is judged, not as much by the possession of goods, but in the reality of connectivity. The Internet of Things (IoT)—the network of devices which are interconnected to exchange data—has provided the data necessary for the implementation of AI. It has leveled the global playing field while simultaneously striving to make it cleaner.

What are the advantages to smart cities?

There are many advantages of smart cities, let us look at top advantages of smart cities.

  • Effective data driven decision making.
  • Better engagement between citizens and government
  • Safer communities
  • Sustainability
  • Autonomous transportation
  • Smarter traffic management systems.
  • Digital equity
  • Efficient public utilities

In the 20th century, as infrastructure issues would arise, the issues would be met with decision-making based around the idea of constant expansion. If the highways and roads were clogged, for example, the solution would be to widen the highways to create even more room for cars. This solution led to two problems: first, constant expansion is unsustainable on several levels because the amount of room in which to expand is finite, and second, the expansion itself doesn’t solve the problem but merely allows for more cars to gain access to the roadways. More cars mean more pollution and more stress placed on the eco-system.

But in a society where connectivity is wealth and the IoT allows for the sharing of goods and information in a way never seen before in the history of humankind, a new solution is possible. If the ever-expanding highway is unsustainable, then it is time to look at the cars themselves. For example, explore the ideas of public transportation, ride sharing, and electric vehicles.

For example, much of urban traffic congestion on a day-to-day basis is a product of drivers searching for parking spaces. As they circle and circle in frustration, traffic becomes increasingly snarled. If sensors were installed along the streets, data regarding open spaces could be gathered and shared in real time by AI, allowing the drivers to find parking quickly and efficiently, and cutting down on the amount of congestion—and time lost—dramatically. The parking sensors could additionally be used to charge the drivers for parking fees as well as summonses without any extra strain on the workforce infrastructure.

If that example is taken a step further, the sanitation department could use the same sensors to communicate with drivers regarding street sweeping schedules, allowing for a faster and more efficient use of sanitation department resources, and attaining a better and cleaner result. These examples can be explored throughout all areas of urban living and incorporating all aspects of municipal services.

Let us look at this a little deeper, recent advances in intelligent vehicle technology suggest that autonomous vehicle navigation will be possible in the very near future. At intersections today, traffic lights and stop signs assist human drivers in safely traversing cross traffic. In the future, however, with computers at the wheel, will it make sense to have intersection control mechanisms that are perfected for today’s human drivers? With the advantages that computerized drivers provide – more precise control, better sensors, and quicker reaction times – we believe automobile travel can be made not only safer and easier, but also more efficient.

Source: YouTube

What are the disadvantages of smart cities?

But there are those that suggest that the loftier ambitions of smart cities crumble in the face of modern, practical threats. With the collection of vast amounts of data comes the threat of that data being misused. Ideally, data needs to be shared with the people to create the goal of the horizontal community, but simultaneously, the data needs to remain secure. There needs to be confidentiality as well as accountability, or else the data could be misused by individuals, organizations, or the government itself.

Adam Greenfield, an American writer, and urbanist, sums it up by saying that the real problem with smart cities is that they deal with cities, not as centers of communities, but as terrains that need to be managed. Much of the informal mobility and informal services normal seen in the urban landscape, is completely unaccounted for. The World Bank estimated in 2010 that 31% of the global GDP was based in informal economic activity. Greenfield suggests the informal gatherings like political rallies, which, again, would not be accounted for in the smart city planning. If the goal of the smart city is the control of efficiency, the worry then is that in the intercommunication of various government agencies, informal gatherings would essentially create the “gridlock” that the system strives to overcome. The possibility exists for the system to work to disband these gatherings in the name of efficiency, and that becomes a strike against personal freedoms.

Source: YouTube

Are smart cities sustainable?

Urban planners have started asking themselves and their communities, if we are able to wire our cities and collect data on behalf of the population, share that data freely with the people, and create solutions based on what we find, are we then able to build communities that work to the advantage of all the people as well as to the sustainability of the planet.

Smart cities, therefore, are the coming together of connectivity, data, government agencies, and the population, to improve the quality of services in the city as well as increase equity and quality of life for the residents.  First, the data is collected through real-time sensors. Then, that data is analyzed. Next, the data is communicated to necessary community decision-makers (e.g., the sanitation department receiving data from the parking department regarding the number of cars on any given street). And finally, action is taken by the decision-makers. Add to that AI utilization in the decision-making process and the framework becomes more streamlined and sustainable.

What is AI’s role in smart cities?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is introduced to the smart city landscape in an effort increase efficiency and sustainability while decreasing the opportunity for waste. All aspects of urban living, from commuting to supply chains, can be monitored, and adjusted using AI technologies to ease strains on the infrastructure and increase the quality of life for the population. With a focus on streamlining the process, AI is also able to streamline the cost, making urban planning and operation more budgetary efficient.

Oakland, CA has dedicated its traffic management to an AI system. Vision-based monitors have been placed throughout the city as well as on buses and sanitation vehicles. The monitors collect data, essentially mapping the city in real time. The AI system then adjusts traffic and sanitation patterns based on the immediate needs and circumstances. Vaibhav Ghadiok, co-founder and VP of Engineering with Hayden AI, the company responsible for Oakland’s AI system, said, “The network of spatially aware perception devices collaborate to build a real-time 3D map of the city. These devices learn over time and from each other to provide data and insights that can be shared across city agencies. This can be used to make buses run on time by clearing bus lanes of parked vehicles or help with city planning through better parking and curbside management. “

Conclusion: Smart cities. 

The pros and the cons of the smart city are strikingly apparent, and the debate will continue while one fact stands out: globally, 56% of the population lives in cities; in North America, that number is 84%. Within the next twenty years, the population of cities globally will swell by more than two billion people. All that growth will take place while the existing infrastructure continues to crumble, and global resources continue to be strained. Water processing alone is a daunting prospect for an additional two billion inhabitants. Governments and peoples need to turn their attention quickly and effectively toward solutions that will better serve the ecosystem and the sustainability of urban populations. Like all great ideas that have come before, the idea of the smart city has met its time and place in history. Over the next twenty years, the paradigm will be further developed, and problems met and overcome. The urban sprawl stands the chance of becoming the efficient and sustainable urban oasis.

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