AI for the Planet: Highlighting AI innovations for sustainable mobility and smart cities

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To address the important role AI based solutions are playing to ensure environmental sustainability, UNESCO, in collaboration with UNEP, StartUp Inside, and Microsoft, organized a global virtual dialogue dedicated to the theme of Sustainable Mobility and Smart Cities on 16 March. The conference was the first of a series of monthly dialogues “Tuesdays Together for the Planet” that will be held throughout 2021 dedicated to highlighting AI applications in domains related to sustainable development and the preservation of our planet. Over 2000 people worldwide from more than 100 countries joined the digital event..

In his opening keynote Dr. Emmanuel Letouzé, Founder of Data-Pop Alliance, emphasized that the current pandemic has exposed injustices in cities. As he showcased, data from cell phones in the United States demonstrated that people from rich areas in the US reduced their mobility way ahead of people in areas identified as economically less powerful. He also underlined the importance of AI and data as key components of tomorrow’s cities and explained how “AI can help humans build better, fairer and safer cities and human systems and societies more broadly”. To do so, it should rely on two approaches, one of “AI as an instrument: the other […] AI as an inspiration”. In addition, Ms Amandine Richaud Grambes, Managing Director at the Fabrique de Mobilites, pointed out the need for AI to be “transparent and democratic” for it to efficiently fight against global warming.

Throughout the discussion, various use cases depicting the potential of new technologies in providing solutions were presented, including by Ms Claudia Mariconda, Head of Sustainable Transition at the Port of Antwerp. Using the SDGs as a framework, their strategy is to rely on various AI systems to reduce the carbon footprint using for example, machine vision for waste monitoring or drones for CO2 reduction. The impact of AI and machine learning to guide cities towards sustainable mobility was also discussed by Professor Angel Hsu, Director of the Data-Driven Environmental Policy Lab who talked about the added value of crowdsourced data and open street maps for city governments to provide access to and improve smart mobility.

The role of cities in helping innovation provide adequate solutions was at the heart of the discussion. Mr Richaud Grambes characterized the city as “a leader in data collection”, Mr Enneric Lopez, the Artificial Intelligence Director at Microsoft added that “innovation comes from the community” highlighting the importance of the ecosystem. Moreover, panelists such as Mr Erik Grab, founder of Movin’On, stressed the need for trust from both citizens and stakeholders in developing technologies, and the necessity of “sharing a vision, working together, processing and detecting opportunities together and testing together”.

Closing remarks were given by Marcus Goddard, VP Intelligence at Netexplo who announced the upcoming launch of UNESCO’s Smart City Accelerator and Netexplo’s yearly rewarding to 10 different cities that are paving the way forward in the domain of architecture, education and resilience. He concluded the discussion by emphasizing the potential of digital technology for cities and highlighted the importance of cities as role models in the region and economy and also in relation to tackling climate change.

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