AI-Powered Urban Innovations Bring Promise, Risk to Future Cities

Article by Anthony Townsend and Hubert Beroche: “Red lights are obsolete. That seems to be the thinking behind Google’s latest fix for cities, which rolled out late last year in a dozen cities around the world, from Seattle to Jakarta. Most cities still collect the data to determine the timing of traffic signals by hand. But Project Green Light replaced clickers and clipboards with mountains of location data culled from smartphones. Artificial intelligence crunched the numbers, adjusting the signal pattern to smooth the flow of traffic. Motorists saw 30% fewer delays. There’s just one catch. Even as pedestrian deaths in the US reached a 40-year high in 2022, Google engineers omitted pedestrians and cyclists from their calculations.

Google’s oversight threatens to undo a decade of progress on safe streets and is a timely reminder of the risks in store when AI invades the city. Mayors across global cities have embraced Vision Zero pledges to eliminate pedestrian deaths. They are trying to slow traffic down, not speed it up. But Project Green Light’s website doesn’t even mention road safety. Still, the search giant’s experiment demonstrates AI’s potential to help cities. Tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions at intersections fell by 10%. Imagine what AI could do if we used it to empower people in cities rather than ignore them.

Take the technocratic task of urban planning and the many barriers to participation it creates. The same technology that powers chatbots and deepfakes is rapidly bringing down those barriers. Real estate developers have mastered the art of using glossy renderings to shape public opinion. But UrbanistAI, a tool developed by Helsinki-based startup SPIN Unit and the Milanese software company Toretei, puts that power in the hands of residents: It uses generative AI to transform text prompts into photorealistic images of alternative designs for controversial projects. Another startup, the Barcelona-based Aino, wraps a chatbot around a mapping tool. Using such computer aids, neighborhood activists no longer need to hire a data scientist to produce maps from census data to make their case…(More)”.