⏳ 09.10.2023

How can we use AI to harness the health of our cities?

If you’re reading this, then it seems you have access to a computer or a smartphone. And if you have access to such a digital luxury, then you’re probably living not so far from modern civilisation. And if that’s so, then you’ve probably heard all about the rapid advancements currently underway in the world of tech.

Yes, AI provides the central theme of our discussion today. 

The idea of AI evolving alongside our society can seem quite ominous, but let’s forget about that for one second and, instead, ponder the question: In what instances could it be truly better for the planet to hand over some affairs to the intelligent machine? 

We talk to Josephine Hintz, doctoral researcher into cities’ use of AI for climate change mitigation, about the advantageous uses of AI that could bode very well for our future. 

Hintz’s research currently focuses on cities around Europe and the steps being taken to reduce city emissions through AI related strategies. Hintz tells us that, due to the overwhelming amount of activity in cities, they can act as a minefield for data. Question is, how can we use this data for good? 

Interestingly, Hintz reveals that a major culprit of unnecessary emissions throughout cities is inefficient heating systems, accounting for 30-50% of most cities’ energy consumption. In this circumstance, algorithms could be much more efficient in heat buildings, leaving behind much less waste while still providing the warmth we all need in the dead of winter. 

In Berlin, Hintz tells us, AI could be used a lot more. However, that is not to say that experimentation is not happening. For example, research is being conducted into the efficiency of the watering of street trees and how a lot more water could be saved in the process. Research shows that a lot of the trees we walk under everyday in Berlin are under a lot of stress, especially during the summer heatwaves. This might sadden most of us who revel at the green cityscape of Berlin and thank the trees for their existence. They are pivotal in the city’s ecosystem and all of our wellbeing. Luckily, AI provides a source of hope; a potential means by which to help our green friends. Furthermore, Berlin is also starting to use AI with route planning optimisation for waste trucks and cleaning vehicles.

As the AI space is a relatively new one, Hintz tells us that Berlin needs people who understand large data sets and the current reality of cities. ‘Data is the new gold,’ Hintz comments, however we need those who can understand and analyse it, and find solutions for the most pressing challenges.  

So, you might be wondering, if AI could have such a large scope and positive impact on the efficiency of city planning, why are we not implementing it faster and wider? 

Well, the answer, quite simply put, is: lack of resources.

Hintz points out that one facet of this is that public sector jobs are less competitive than those in the private sector. However, cities are slowly realising the importance of expertise in every realm and the crossover between sectors. Cities need bridge builders, as well as data analysts and those who understand the public administration system all at once and this is a huge gap many cities have. 

Hintz encourages future software engineers who are interested in finding solutions to city sustainability to ask the right questions; how can we use AI for good? What experiments or hackathons will help me in answering this question? What use-cases pose an opportunity to use digital tools to make the urban life much better? Hintze also stresses that one should be mindful that technology is a tool rather than a solution in itself, and so the implementation of certain behaviours and communication must also be dealt with utmost care. 

Our conversation with Hintz has inspired us to look at the cities that we live in with wonder and hope; we have created so much and we have so much further to go. The ways in which we can harness the power of our technological advancements to help our cities function smarter is an exciting endeavour we have ahead.

Do you have any ideas? We would love to hear them! Send us a message or tag us on Instagram (@42berlin_) so we can start a conversation! 

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