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How can we assess AI-enabled solutions in urban settings from a socio-technical perspective?

4 May 2023 | Implementing Artificial Intelligence in a responsible way comes with a plethora of challenges. The Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence (IEAI) of Technical University of Munich aims, amongst other things, to explore the ethical issues related to the development, use and impact of AI-enabled technologies, ensuring that AI will have a positive and sustainable impact on the world. One of the projects funded by the Institute looks at AI-solutions implemented in an urban setting: The Ethics for the Smart City project brings IEAI researchers together with the university’s Chair of Transportation Systems Engineering and various external partners and combines the engineering with a social sciences perspective.

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Ethics for the Smart City

Applied socio-technical frameworks to assess the implementation of AI-related solutions

Duration: September 2022 – August 2024
Project website

This interdisciplinary research project brings together the Chair of Transportation Systems Engineering (TSE) and the Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence, both based at the Technical University of Munich. The interdisciplinary approach enables us to look at Smart City solutions from both a social sciences and an engineering perspective and collaborations established with external partners, including European cities of different scales, endorse our aim to understand Smart Cities in practice. Our guiding question is: How can we assess AI-enabled solutions implemented on urban settings from a socio-technical perspective? and expected impacts lean towards enabling people centered Smart Cities.

The project has four pillars:

  1. Smart Cities for sustainable development: assessing social and environmental impacts;
  2. Urban governance: transparency and public engagement;
  3. Data governance: transparency, data policies, privacy, stakeholder accountability; and
  4. Ethics by design: developing and deploying trustworthy technologies.

The main outcomes are socio-technical frameworks aiming to steer the ethical implementation of Smart City agendas, by promoting a responsible use of frontier or disruptive technologies on urban settings and designing people-centred, and co-created solutions.

While narrowing down the scope of the project, based on the defined pillars, Figure 1 summarizes the approach under the Smart City umbrella, addressing the values of privacy, social inclusion and social justice and aiming at proposing applied socio-technical frameworks for the ethical implementation of Smart City’s. Our contributions are mainly relevant to improve urban governance. From a theoretical standpoint, we use the two AI-based (urban digital twin, and disruptive urban mobility solutions) use cases to demonstrate how the socio-technical frameworks can also be applied by framing a specific system.

Figure 1. Applied socio-technical frameworks to assess the implementation of AI-related solutions

Current progress and future plans

Starting with the third project pillar concerned with data policies and privacy, one of the key advancements is the design and implementation of an inclusive tool for public participation. We showcase how a public opinion survey can be implemented to meet both representativeness and inclusiveness, i.e., to portray a city’s residents opinions while adding a focus on engaging groups deemed more vulnerable and social minorities’ voices. The survey will allow us to understand the value of privacy and the meanings of personal data, at a local level. Aligning with the UN-Habitat People-Centered Smart Cities, this collaboration is intended to scale up the survey’s replication and cover more cities within and outside Europe.


Dublin workshop

On the 21st of March 2023, researchers of the project “Ethics for the Smart City” took part in the workshop “How does technology interact with you in the city? In the city of Dublin, Ireland. Dr. Catarina Fontes and Dr. Christelle Al Haddad were invited by the UN-Habitat and Smart Docklands team to join efforts to prepare/implement this workshop framing Digital Rights with the local community. Other partners and observers represented were Dublin City Council, Connect – Center for the Future Networks, Cities Coalition for Digital Rights, EuroCities ad United Cities and Local Governments.

Tutzing conference

On the 14th and 15th of April, the Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence and the Akademie für Politische Bildung held a multidisciplinary conference discussing "AI Governance: Challenges and Opportunities for the Public Sector" in Tutzing. The conference gathered stakeholders from a variety of sectors, such as academia, civil society, and private industry, to discuss tomorrow’s solutions to today’s dilemmas. Among various activities presented in this conference, the researchers of the project (Dr. Fontes and Dr. Al Haddad) were able to pilot a first version of their survey on privacy and personal data, gaining useful insights in the improvement of their methodology. Additionally, they conducted a workshop in collaboration with experts from UN-Habitat, in which they highly engaged with participants on different AI use cases, and deliberated on what would be (or not) acceptable AI implementations, and under which conditions.

Related publications

  • Al Haddad, C., Chaniotakis, E., Straubinger, A., Plötner, K., & Antoniou, C. (2020). Factors affecting the adoption and use of urban air mobility. Transportation research part A: policy and practice, 132, 696-712.
  • Abouelela, M., Al Haddad, C., Islam, M. A., & Antoniou, C. (2022). User Preferences towards Hyperloop Systems: Initial Insights from Germany. Smart Cities, 5(4), 1336-1355.
  • Fontes, C., Hohma, E., Corrigan, C. C., & Lütge, C. (2022). AI-powered public surveillance systems: why we (might) need them and how we want them. Technology in Society, 71, 102137.
  • Fontes, A. C., & Lütge, C. (2022). Surveillance and power relations. The use of facial recognition technologies and remote biometric identification in public spaces and impacts on public life. Direito Público, 18 (100).
  • Fontes, C. & Perrone, C. (2021) Ethics of surveillance: harnessing the use of live facial recognition technologies in public spaces for law enforcement. TUM IEAI Research Brief.
  • Fontes, C. & Dubey, R.K. (Under Review). Urban Futures: Possibilities and Challenges for Ethical Virtual Cities.
  • Fontes, C., Al Haddad, C., Lütge, C. & Antoniou, A. (Under Review). Is a people-centered city smart enough? Inclusivity, participation, and co-creation meanings for urban governance.
  • Fontes, C., Al Haddad, C. & Poszler, F. (In prep). AI enabling disruptive mobility solutions – Exploring challenges for an ethical adoption and public acceptance. TUM IEAI Research Brief.
  • Fontes, C., Al Haddad, C., Lütge, C. & Antoniou, A. (In prep). Designing a survey as an inclusive tool for public engagement – challenges and lessons learned.
  • Al Haddad, C., Fontes, C., Antoniou, A. & Lütge, C. (In prep). AI-based Disruptive Mobility Solutions: Can they be Ethically Designed?