Carlos Moreno, an internationally recognized expert on smart city and sustainable city, shared with me his vision of AI and cities.
You often talk about the “Quarter Hour City”. Could you tell us what this is about? Can AI technology help us create this quarter city?
The Quarter Hour City allows for any individual to access within the quarter of an hour and via eco-friendly transportations any social amenities necessary to make anyone happy. In shorts, the idea is to centralize within shorter distances the six primary social functions anyone needs daily: dwellings, work, food, daily care, school and leisure. The AI, by its understanding of the area it deals with, by being able to centralize all information about every infrastructures and by referencing anything useful can thoroughly be part of the Quarter Hour City. It can also contribute to make our cities polymorphic. This means making sure those infrastructures are available for many uses. In France, a school is open from 8am until 4pm. It isn’t used outside of these hours. Of course, this can be observed for many other infrastructures. What the Quarter Hour City aims to do is to open it up and to make sure any building can be set up as to serve other purposes. We then end up with a polycentric city within a network. In Quebec, we call it “the comprehensive city”. The AI will make sure the city’s hidden resources can be explored. It can play a central role but only if its purposes serve the quality of life of each citizen as well as that of the amenities, not the opposite.
Can you think about cities which managed to properly integrate this AI to serve its citizens’ purposes?
There are a lot of experimentations happening around the world as we speak. Nantes is a pioneer city when it comes to AI technology, and this through NaonedIA a collective working on an ethical AI. Montréal, through the work of Yoshua Bengio, is working on a humanistic AI. Other experiments have been made in Singapore through self-driving cabs. However, when a Data becomes a service, it makes it more interesting. Hybridization is another interesting form. It happens when you mix Data and usage together. We can therefore create an urbanization via usage.
When we speak about AI use in a city, we often think about policed cities, such as Shenzhen. In this case, this gives us the impression we need to choose between either feeling secure or protecting our private life…
Any AI, as any other technology in general, is a pharmakon. This means it can either be a cure or a poison depending on what you do with it. China has decided to inject mass-surveillance into its citizen’s daily life with a very concrete impact on their social life (for instance, with the granted scholarships). Here technology is used as a mean to enslave. However, surveillance cameras are also a mean to catch terrorists. During Lyon’s terrorist attacks, they allowed us to quickly find and arrest the culprits. It is therefore essential to have a clear political and social vision on how technology can help us.
We live in a democratic country, which isn’t the case for Chinese citizens. Our democracy is mature enough to help put into place protections for its citizen. We are one of the only countries to own a CNIL. At the European level, we have the RGPD. However, we need to understand that, in France, we are stuck in a paradox. We are, in a way, very protective of our private database and at the same time we go on websites where we accept that our data are being tracked.
The “post-carbon city” is also something which matters to you. Can the AI help us reach this objective?
This isn’t through an algorithm we will solve how transportation operates within a city. These questions need a political approach as well as a deep reflexion as to which place cars hold in our cities. When we say we want a “post-carbon” city, we do not talk about the AI but about buildings as well as heating, agricultural and industrial networks. To get rid of all the carbon in a city, you need to make it polycentric, change its urbanism, enrich its biodiversity, facilitate soft mobility and reintroduce nature. It is therefore a political choice. However, the AI can help reaffirm these choices. For example, by helping to create a CO2 marketplace. As a result, the territorial Data becomes an extremely powerful tool. The AI can therefore help to decarbonize a city by helping to characterize the territorial Data so that it can be linked to our daily uses.
However, an AI without ontology is useless. The big challenge for an AI is to turn Data into knowledge. It is, for example, transforming a fragment of human tissue into a carcinoma. In this case, the AI as a social role. However, going from a black spot to a carcinoma involves an ontological knowledge. To a city’s extend, it is the same thing. For instance, a meningitis breaks out in an area of the city. The AI will link this Data with other data to contain this very contagious disease.
One last question and on a lighter tone: what would your ideal city look like?
A city is a living organism and as such it answers to a triple axiomatic: being incomplete, imperfect and temporary. There cannot be an ideal city as each city is imperfect, fragile and incomplete. However, they all respond to a given context. Shanghai is very different from Bogota which is very different from Paris. Each city has a context. Instead of talking about an ideal city, I prefer to focus on a city with a purpose of happiness. This means it needs to have an aim to give me access to 6 urban functions (dwellings, work, food, daily care, school and leisure) as well as limiting my commutes. The aim to a happier city is also one where we would find common goods. Water, air, shadow, space, time and silence are the most precious common goods. When we rediscover these elements within the quarter hour’s territoriality, we end up with a happier city and happier citizens.