Ambient intelligence and the digital umbrella

Urban AI
Urban AI
Published in
5 min readSep 16, 2021


Photo by Marius Hartmann, Tokyo 2019

Marius Hartmann is in charge of the Data Science team at the Danish Business Authority. Currently working with real time graph ML and fraud detection and architecting of the data platform supporting this. Marius is trained as an artist at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and holds a PhD from the IT University of Copenhagen.

Even the most modern of cities today seem left in another time in which communication was shaped by the anonymity of its inhabitants. Light displays, billboards and auditory communication are still undirected and incapable of addressing target groups within the passing commuters. The city as a communication device is antiquated and struggling with how to interact with or even advocate the benefits of presence to its users.


The inhabitants and users of the city are partly to blame as it has become commonplace to be transfixed on personal handheld devices. The latter to such an extent that most people you pass in the street are not really paying attention or any degree of interest to their surroundings. This is not a critique of handheld devices; the proliferation of these powerful devices in fact holds the key to the communication problems of the city, if cities chose to go about them intelligently.

However heartbreaking it is to observe a couple sharing a table in a cafe — each consumed by their personal device and not each other — it is not the task of the city to interfere in interpersonal relations. Still the example still serves to illustrate how pervasive non-presence has become. We deliberately choose the term non-presence as opposed to tele-presence, as it is rarely the case that either party on a video call, chat or game is asserting a presence outside the shared digital space of the person they are interacting with.

The current state of affairs is the product of both lacking city infrastructure and the anti-social refuge of the personal device. The gap between these two has led to a mediocre display of contextual awareness of neither physical surroundings nor fellow citizens.

The monoliths

Cities have an awareness of the physical surroundings as a liveable space to the citizen; lots of areas are clearly not intended for family life, but contain faceless commercial monoliths occasionally spilling out employees and providing the need for a category of small businesses providing food and drink. Monoliths are well-defined in the city landscape, but — shockingly — much larger monoliths are dominant in the invisible city. Part of the invisible city is the digital space inhabitants are tapping into and devote most of their consciousness to, and in this space the city itself is becoming increasingly non-present.

Liveability of the invisible city

For the city to take part in the digital space it needs to provide the infrastructure for its citizens to inhabit. Almost every citizen has an address, but in the invisible city all are homeless and are squatting courtesy of the monolith landlords. The city has failed to provide the infrastructure in which the inhabitants influence individually and control collectively their surroundings; the digital domain allows a city to support the life of its citizens. Increasing liveability of the invisible city could start by providing a framework for wireless interaction with connected properties of the city surface.

The monoliths have shown us that the boundary between personal and public contains a grey area in which new services can flourish. But the lack of public governance of the commercialization of personal data has also inverted our notion of the city. The global village of today means that the company providing the coffee knows more of the clients than the persons serving that coffee, even if that serving relation has been year long.

Cities presently chose to serve its citizens irrelevant information as communication infrastructure is still being commercialized from the strategies of the past. There is an unexplored market opportunity for cities to co-create liveable spaces of the invisible city together with its local businesses and citizens. In a city that knows you, there is no no need to stand in line for coffee or just miss the bus.

The digital umbrella

If we chose to open up the city interface to personalized services instead of mass communication, a new dialogue between a city and its citizens can take place. Of course a dialogue starts by people choosing what to say and what not to say. So the sharing of personal information needs to be made in an environment that is trustable and where the citizen is in control. The amount of information about one’s life situation, feelings and identity one wishes to convey is by nature individual. A system designed to utilize individual citizen profile data should only be able to do so on the basis of that citizens configured choices. In this way citizens can walk right by public interfaces without the risk of public display. They are shielded by their digital umbrella, which filters awareness of the possible services on offer and tunes the level of interaction with the surroundings.

The digital filter and multimodal communication can provide rich information to users by virtue of contextual understanding of user needs and intentions. This way information can even be presented in ambient and non-intrusive ways that protect the user’s personal information both by means of data protection and ambiguity of information to others not causally related to the information displayed.

The advent of a modern digital infrastructure of cities, and the sprawl of services made possible from this can change the spatial thinking of cities and provide new methods of communication and dialogue with its inhabitants. By giving agency to the citizens in the interaction with the invisible city, the liveable digital space can emerge and fuse with the spatial thinking of a city.

As John walked toward the train station, a thin line of light speed passed him blinking as it went by and then crawling to a stand still half way down the wall of a Tesco’s, echoing the buzzing of the phone in his pocket. 1–2–3–4–5. Sighing. He looked around the shop windows, as he had just been given some time to spare, the train was late again, no need to stand on the platform. A new book on Economic Theory lit up at Norton’s Bookstore. He smiled: ‘Damn you, Norton’.

By Marius Hartmann



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