Emerging technologies, led by artificial intelligence, are making their way into the city. New trends in smart cities navigate between the optimization of the existing and the promise of disruptive transformations.

Esteve Almirall

It seems as if the transformative power of AI knows no bounds. Since the emergence of generative AI – like ChatGPT – we have witnessed warnings of dangers such as the end of democracy and even the extinction of the human species, while more optimistic voices herald a society where humanity would finally be freed from the bondage of labor.  

But what are the opportunities this new generation of artificial intelligence offers to cities?  

Current Smart City trends oscillate between optimizing what already exists and the utopia of the new. Both trends, which are by no means opposed, translate into tangible interventions. Examples can be found in camera-based control centers and in the concept of the 15-minute city, a green, human-scaled city envisioned by my good friend Carlos Moreno.  

An AI with 5000 eyes 

A case in point of image-based control centers can be found in Seoul. Seoul, a city of about 10 million residents divided into 25 districts, is teeming with cameras connected to sophisticated AI-governed control centers.  

For instance, in the central district of Seoul, Gangnam, there are about 5,000 cameras set to increase by 1,500 more over the next year. These cameras are managed from a control center operated by just over a dozen people. One might wonder how it is possible to monitor so many cameras with such a small staff. The answer is that the cameras are primarily controlled by artificial intelligence systems, and the specialists only respond to the alerts generated by these systems.  

The 5000 cameras operating in Gangnam, Seoul, are controlled by just a dozen people

Seoul boasts a plethora of artificial intelligence systems that monitor everything from fires to crowds, including altercations, thefts, and even whether buildings are moving, indicating potential structural failures. Of course, all issues related to traffic, improper parking, etc., are also included.  

One of the most intriguing aspects of Seoul is the individual use of these systems. For instance, through a mobile app, any citizen can request to be monitored by these cameras that will automatically alert if they detect any issues, such as being followed by someone or other dangerous situations. This particular system is mainly used by middle-aged or older women living alone and during nighttime.  

Data to improve the city 

However, this is not the most common example of AI usage in cities aiming to optimize operations. More typical examples revolve around mobility, from traffic light control to fully integrated mobility applications such as Alibaba's City Brain. A significant effort in this area has been the creation of "digital twins" of cities on which to test new mobility policies and strategies. This way, they can assess the impact of urban interventions before affecting the physical world, applying it first to its physical simulation. 

Yet, there's another side to the coin that doesn't focus on optimizing the existing but on reinventing cities.  

Data collection in the city allows reorientation of urban planning

Big Data has also made its way into cities, opening up a whole new realm of possibilities. Perhaps the most evident domain is urban planning, where new groups of urbanists (e.g., 300,000km/s) use data to guide urban design. Data ranges from pollution levels to mapping routes where aesthetic beauty, rather than distance, is the determining factor.  

The most notable example from this group is the introduction of chronograms in urban planning by Carlos Moreno, leading to the 15-minute city concept, which denotes the area that can be covered on foot in 15 minutes. Ideally, not only essential services but also spaces to enjoy and work should be located within this area. These human-scaled cities aim to rediscover gathering spaces, overcome the center-periphery divide, and create cities where exchange, creativity, and the well-being of people are paramount.  

Free up public space  

Beyond these two main themes, there are areas of disruption seen as potential catalysts for radical transformations. The progressive digitization of our daily reality is one of them. Its strength was fully manifested during the pandemic, and new developments in virtual and augmented reality promise to blur the boundary between the two even further. This undoubtedly has significant implications for cities, reducing mobility needs while increasing the pressure to create more humane spaces, the 15-minute cities.  

But perhaps the most potentially transformative element is robotaxis. Self-driving vehicles, primarily from Tesla, already have a relatively significant presence on our highways. Robotaxis, on-demand self-driving cars, are now operating in cities with offerings from Waymo (Google) and Cruise (GM) in Austin, Phoenix, San Francisco, and recently Los Angeles.  

  • Cruise (GM) prototype robotaxi, now without a steering wheel
    Cruise (GM) prototype robotaxi, now without a steering wheel

The service works similarly to Uber. Through an app, you request a ride and a car – in many cities, already without a safety driver – arrives and completes the journey accurately and strictly adhering to traffic rules. However, their operation is not without challenges, especially for Cruise. Unexpected situations in complex city traffic with e-scooters, bicycles, trams, buses, etc., are countless. While many are gradually resolved, several still result in incidents and occasionally accidents.  

Nevertheless, the promise of this disruption is undoubtedly significant and transformative. The availability of low-cost, on-demand mobility services, with a broad range of offerings from minibuses to conventional cars and limousines, from private to public, would allow the near-disappearance of private cars from our cities. This would free up a vast amount of space currently devoted to parking and mobility, probably representing the most disruptive transformative promise our cities face, a promise that, if managed correctly, can undoubtedly make them more livable and humane. 

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