Tech News: AI is smartly shaping our cities

Photo: File

Photo: File

Published Sep 28, 2021


FIFTY-five percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas. According to researchers, this will increase to 70 percent or about 2.5 billion people by 2050.

Almost 90% of this increase will take place in Asia and Africa. But many cities are not just growing, but also trying to reconfigure themselves to meet the demands of the future.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are emerging as important tools to cope with the growth and changes of cities, often transforming them into smart cities. AI, an important driver of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), is thus transforming not only the business world, but also our cities and the way we live, work and socialise.


Autonomous or self-driving cars are on the streets of many cities. Modern technology, such as LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging), combined with AI, makes it possible for the autonomous vehicles to “see” through adverse weather and around corners to detect and avoid pedestrians, oncoming vehicles and obstacles.

Planners hope that the technological advancement would result in less congestion, pollution, and accidents. Some experts believe that by 2030, most of the kilometres travelled in the world’s major cities, will be by on-demand autonomous electric vehicles, thus reducing the need for personal car ownership in the city, and solving traffic congestion and parking problems.

Law enforcement

In many cities, facial recognition through the use of AI has become standard practice. During the Covid19 pandemic, police in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) started to use drones equipped with facial recognition software to detect people congregating illegally in large numbers or not wearing a mask. The police also detected and arrested thousands of people committing other criminal activities.

In Abu Dhabi (UAE), law enforcement equipped their vehicles with live biometric facial recognition systems. The cameras and AI software constantly scan people’s faces while interacting with the city’s central police command system to check for outstanding warrants. The police recently used advanced AI, called Ghost, with crime prediction capability to catch three drug traffickers with a large amount of heroin.

Due to privacy objections against facial recognition, Barcelona used AI and thermal imaging systems to monitor beach occupancy during the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of counting the number of people visiting the beaches, they scanned the area of sand that is absent of people.

Energy efficiency

The quick analysis of city data by AI can lead to energy efficiencies. For example, in the UK, AI is used to analyse traffic flow data and to manage the traffic in a more sustainable way through improved and automatic traffic light sequencing.

Using powerful computers and an AI system that learns from experience, real-time data from Internet of Things (IoT) micro sensors within LED street lights, is gathered to intelligently adjust lighting levels as needed in cities such as Barcelona, Rotterdam, Munich and Copenhagen.

The data is usually combined with data from external sources such as the news and weather. The IoT sensors are further used to collect and analyse data on traffic and pedestrian flows, environmental factors (air quality, temperature, wind speed, and humidity) and acoustic data (urban noise, gunshot detection).

Smart waste management Another form of innovative public services in a smart city is smart waste management that entails the collection and processing of waste as is used in the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

Sensors are added to waste containers to measure the filling rate or irregularities in its operation. Through the real-time analysing of the data, efficiency gains can be realised via optimal routing of waste collection according to the filling rate. AI is often further used to predict the patterns of how, when and where waste is discarded, thus allowing the municipality to stimulate efficient waste production and discarding among citizens. Even greater efficiency can be gained if AI-enabled autonomous vehicles that are linked to the automated waste management system are used for waste collection. AI-controlled computer vision is also used to separate waste for recycling or upcycling.

Increasingly smart

Constant innovation in AI in the shape of autonomous or self-driving cars, smart traffic control, crime prediction, efficient energy, emission control, water and waste management, infrastructure maintenance, and urban planning has been pushing the so-called smart city to morph into an autonomous urban place of living and working. In the emerging smart cities, AI is taking over the management of urban services and urban governance. Since AI can unlock the potential and process huge amounts of data very quickly, it is taking many functions out of the hands of humans to operate a city in an autonomous manner.

AI’s enablement of many smart urban solutions will bring multiple benefits to cities and the people living in it. AI is changing the face of our cities. But as the well-known rock song by Bachman-Turner Overdrive goes, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Professor Louis CH Fourie is a technology strategist

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites


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