Being Human in Digital Cities

Book by Myria Georgiou: “…sets out to investigate the new configuration of social order that is taking shape in today’s cities. Although routed through extractive datafication, compulsive connectivity, and regulatory AI technologies, this digital order nonetheless displaces technocentrism and instead promotes new visions of humanism, all in the name of freedom, diversity, and sustainability. But the digital order emerges in the midst of neoliberal instability and crises, resulting in a plurality of contrasting responses to securing digitally mediated human progress. While corporate, media, and state actors mobilize such positive sociotechnical imaginaries to promise digitally mediated human progress, urban citizens and social movements propose alternative pathways to autonomy and dignity through and sometimes against digital technologies.

Investigating the dynamic workings of technology and power from a transnational and comparative perspective, this book reveals the contradictory claims and struggles for the future of digital cities and their humanity. In doing so, it will enrich understandings of digital urbanism, critical data studies, and critical humanist studies.​..(More)”.

Co-Designing Urban Futures: Innovation and partnerships for improved service delivery in intermediary cities

Report by GSMA: “Cities across low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are grappling with the concurrent challenges of rapid urbanisation, climate change and widening inequalities. For intermediary cities, which account for more than half of the urban population in LMICs, these challenges are more pronounced. There is growing evidence that partnerships, collaboration and innovative service delivery models can address these challenges. The GSMA, Connected Places Catapult and UN-Habitat have come together to support cities by driving collaboration between the public and private sectors and enabling the adoption of these innovative models.

This report first outlines the state of urbanisation and the challenges of urban service provision associated with the rapid pace with which cities are growing. It then delves into the unique challenges that intermediary cities face: Governance, digital development, financial capacity and climate change, making the case to accelerate innovation and partnerships in these cities…(More)”.

How cities can flex their purchasing power to stimulate innovation

Article by Sam Markey and Andrew Watkins: “But the “power of the purse” can be a game-changer. City governments spend $6 trillion annually buying goods and services from private sector suppliers, amounting to 8% of world GDP in 2021. These delivery contracts represent a huge commercial opportunity for suppliers, but also a policy tool for local authorities to shape markets and steer private sector research and development…

In recent years, local and national leaders have been rediscovering the power of public procurement and dismantling the legislative and cultural barriers that have limited its potential. Analysis by the OECD endorsed public procurement as a strategic instrument that can be used by government to promote innovation, facilitate diversity of thought and address societal challenges

A growing number of city authorities are using these powers to drive not just delivery but transformation:

  • Faced with the challenge of waste collection from properties using narrow rear alleys as a dumping ground, Liverpool City Council (UK) used an innovation-friendly procurement approach to engage the market, and identify, evaluate and integrate a new solution. Installing communal waste collection points with below-surface storage restored the alleys to being community spaces, promoting a sense of belonging and neighbourliness. Clearly marked disposal points for recycling saw adoption rise by 270%, while new ways of working saw the cost of collection fall from £56 to £32 per property, and a carbon footprint reduction of 60%.
  • In Norway, where ferries provide vital transport infrastructure and are therefore largely operated as public services, regional governments require that all new ferry contracts must use low-emission technologies where possible. This market pull has seen electric-powered ferries replace diesel ferries, cutting emissions by 95% and costs by 80%.
  • As part of an ambitious Green New Deal that aims to electrify 6,000 properties in Ithaca, New York State, the city secured a 30% discount on the cost of heat pumps and other retrofit technologies by orchestrating demand into an advance bulk purchase.
  • Through the YES San Francisco Urban Sustainability Challenge, the City of San Francisco is partnering with the public-private sector to launch 14 new technologies to be deployed locally to support sustainability goals…(More)”.

DC launched an AI tool for navigating the city’s open data

Article by Kaela Roeder: “In a move echoing local governments’ increasing attention toward generative artificial intelligence across the country, the nation’s capital now aims to make navigating its open data easier through a new public beta pilot.

DC Compass, launched in March, uses generative AI to answer user questions and create maps from open data sets, ranging from the district’s population to what different trees are planted in the city. The Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) partnered with the geographic information system (GIS) technology company Esri, which has an office in Vienna, Virginia, to create the new tool.

This debut follows Mayor Muriel Bowser’s signing of DC’s AI Values and Strategic Plan in February. The order requires agencies to assess if using AI is in alignment with the values it sets forth, including that there’s a clear benefit to people; a plan for “meaningful accountability” for the tool; and transparency, sustainability, privacy and equity at the forefront of deployment.

These values are key when launching something like DC Compass, said Michael Rupert, the interim chief technology officer for digital services at the Office of the Chief Technology Officer.

“The way Mayor Bowser rolled out the mayor’s order and this value statement, I think gives residents and businesses a little more comfort that we aren’t just writing a check and seeing what happens,” Rupert said. “That we’re actually methodically going about it in a responsible way, both morally and fiscally.”..(More)”.

Screenshot of AI portal with black text and data tables over white background


This City Pilots Web3 Quadratic Funding for Public Infrastructure

Article by Makoto Takahiro: “The city of Split, Croatia is piloting an innovative new system for deciding how to fund municipal infrastructure projects. Called “quadratic funding,” the mechanism aims to fairly account for both public and private preferences when allocating limited budget resources.

A coalition of organizations including BlockSplit, Funding the Commons, Gitcoin, and the City of Split launched the Municipal Quadratic Funding Initiative in September 2023. The project goals include implementing quadratic funding for prioritizing public spending, utilizing web3 tools to increase transparency and participation, and demonstrating the potential of these technologies to improve legacy processes.

If successful, the model could scale to other towns and cities or inspire additional quadratic funding experiments.

The partners believe that the transparency and configurability of blockchain systems make them well-suited to quadratic funding applications.

Quadratic funding mathematically accounts for the intensity of demand for public goods. Groups can create projects which individuals can support financially. The amount of money ultimately directed to each proposal is based on the square of support received. This means that projects attracting larger numbers of smaller contributions can compete with those receiving fewer large donations.

In this way, quadratic funding aims to reflect both willingness to pay and breadth of support in funding decisions. It attempts to break tendency towards corruption where influential groups lobby for their niche interests. The goal is a fairer allocation suited to the whole community’s preferences.

The initiative will build on open source quadratic funding infrastructure already deployed for other uses like funding public goods on Ethereum. Practical web3 tools can help teadministration manage funding rounds and disburse awards…(More)”.

Designing Digital Voting Systems for Citizens

Paper by Joshua C. Yang et al: “Participatory Budgeting (PB) has evolved into a key democratic instrument for resource allocation in cities. Enabled by digital platforms, cities now have the opportunity to let citizens directly propose and vote on urban projects, using different voting input and aggregation rules. However, the choices cities make in terms of the rules of their PB have often not been informed by academic studies on voter behaviour and preferences. Therefore, this work presents the results of behavioural experiments where participants were asked to vote in a fictional PB setting. We identified approaches to designing PB voting that minimise cognitive load and enhance the perceived fairness and legitimacy of the digital process from the citizens’ perspective. In our study, participants preferred voting input formats that are more expressive (like rankings and distributing points) over simpler formats (like approval voting). Participants also indicated a desire for the budget to be fairly distributed across city districts and project categories. Participants found the Method of Equal Shares voting rule to be fairer than the conventional Greedy voting rule. These findings offer actionable insights for digital governance, contributing to the development of fairer and more transparent digital systems and collective decision-making processes for citizens…(More)”.

Riders in the smog

Article by Zuha Siddiqui, Samriddhi Sakuna and Faisal Mahmud: “…To better understand air quality exposure among gig workers in South Asia, Rest of World gave three gig workers — one each in Lahore, New Delhi, and Dhaka — air quality monitors to wear throughout a regular shift in January. The Atmotube Pro monitors continually tracked their exposure to carcinogenic pollutants — specifically PM1, PM2.5, and PM10 (different sizes of particulate matter), and volatile organic compounds such as benzene and formaldehyde.

The data revealed that all three workers were routinely exposed to hazardous levels of pollutants. For PM2.5, referring to particulates that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less — which have been linked to health risks including heart attacks and strokes — all riders were consistently logging exposure levels more than 10 times the World Health Organization’s recommended daily average of 15 micrograms per cubic meter. Manu Sharma, in New Delhi, recorded the highest PM2.5 level of the three riders, hitting 468.3 micrograms per cubic meter around 6 p.m. Lahore was a close second, with Iqbal recording 464.2 micrograms per cubic meter around the same time.

Alongside tracking specific pollutants, the Atmotube Pro gives an overall real-time air quality score (AQS) from 0–100, with zero being the most severely polluted, and 100 being the cleanest. According to Atmo, the company that makes the Atmotube monitors, a reading of 0–20 should be considered a health alert, under which conditions “everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion.” But the three gig workers found their monitors consistently displayed the lowest possible score…(More)”.

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)”.

The Computable City: Histories, Technologies, Stories, Predictions

Book by Michael Batty: “At every stage in the history of computers and communications, it is safe to say we have been unable to predict what happens next. When computers first appeared nearly seventy-five years ago, primitive computer models were used to help understand and plan cities, but as computers became faster, smaller, more powerful, and ever more ubiquitous, cities themselves began to embrace them. As a result, the smart city emerged. In The Computable City, Michael Batty investigates the circularity of this peculiar evolution: how computers and communications changed the very nature of our city models, which, in turn, are used to simulate systems composed of those same computers.

Batty first charts the origins of computers and examines how our computational urban models have developed and how they have been enriched by computer graphics. He then explores the sequence of digital revolutions and how they are converging, focusing on continual changes in new technologies, as well as the twenty-first-century surge in social media, platform economies, and the planning of the smart city. He concludes by revisiting the digital transformation as it continues to confound us, with the understanding that the city, now a high-frequency twenty-four-hour version of itself, changes our understanding of what is possible…(More)”.

Civic Trust: What’s In A Concept?

Article by Stefaan Verhulst, Andrew J. Zahuranec, Oscar Romero and Kim Ochilo: “We will only be able to improve civic trust once we know how to measure it…

A visualization of the ways to measure civic trust

Recently, there’s been a noticeable decline in trust toward institutions across different sectors of society. This is a serious issue, as evidenced by surveys including the Edelman Trust BarometerGallup, and Pew Research.

Diminishing trust presents substantial obstacles. It threatens to weaken the foundation of a pluralistic democracy, adversely affects public health, and hinders the collaboration needed to tackle worldwide challenges such as climate change. Trust forms the cornerstone of democratic social contracts and is crucial for maintaining the civic agreements essential for the prosperity and cohesion of communities, cities, and countries alike.

Yet to increase civic trust, we need to know what we mean by it and how to measure it, which turns out to be a challenging exercise. Toward that end, The GovLab at New York University and the New York Civic Engagement Commission joined forces to catalog and identify methodologies to quantify and understand the nuances of civic trust.

“Building trust across New York is essential if we want to deepen civic engagement,” said Sarah Sayeed, Chair and Executive Director of the Civic Engagement Commission. “Trust is the cornerstone of a healthy community and robust democracy.”

This blog delves into various strategies for developing metrics to measure civic trust, informed by our own desk research, which categorizes civic trust metrics into descriptive, diagnostic, and evaluative measures…(More)”.