Urban AI
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Urban AI

Robotization: the advantage of developing economies on developed ones.

Fig.1 — Robot arms in a production chain.

In the specific context of an interview by Oliver Mitchell, VC investor at FF Venture Capital, which is also writing from time to time for the Robot Report. I shared my experience of the digital transformation from my case studies in Taiwan, Israel, and Estonia, with a specific focus on disruptive technologies and the advent of robotization in our cities.

1) Explain the genesis of your work, what prompted you to study AI in SmartCities?

I started real estate development in a family business in the South of France, after my graduation in psychology. I’ve been attracted early by the potential of ICT to modernize the way we were producing housing facilities, and to overpass my challengers which kept thinking of this business in a traditional (old-fashioned) vision. Since I had this background studies in social science, I’ve been naturally committed to using the internet as a social innovation tool and started to experience different ways to introduce participatory decision-making with the customers of the company. Step by step, this approach broadened, becoming a will to co-design urban areas with neighbors, and finally citizen engagement in smart-city.

I’ve been refining my collaborative management methodology for 10 years, taking various roles in the stakeholders of a city building: non-profit associations to sound out inhabitants of different districts, a think tank with private business owners to build a future-oriented project for my hometown and influence local politics, the real estate company asked for specific visions for land management and a very grounded business model from the existing housing market, and the startups offered that possibilities to experience new business models, trying to reach the support from investors and fast prototyping digital projects.

Finally, after some years of experience, I joined an academic research laboratory, to strengthen my field expertise with some scientific establishment and data evidence. I also used that opportunity to switch my working language from French to English, grow an international network on my topic, and publish open valuable content and analysis on the web to share my experience and be recognized as a legitimate expert on my field. After having collected data in different case studies, I’ve been learning Python to make my data analysis and was obviously tempted to try some machine learning on my datasets. Once I understood how ML works, I built my own algorithms to analyze citizen engagement in smart cities and started to present it to some fellow researchers, or entrepreneurs of civic technologies and smart cities. The feedback has been very enthusiastic and so I kept pushing my AI models forward by finally coding two computer simulations from my data analysis which allows me to make some more inferences outside of my datasets.

2) How would you rate the implementations of technology within the urban environment in the three areas you evaluated? Can summarize some good and bad use cases? Have you followed up to see how citizens are engaging with the evolution of their environments? Summarize the regional approaches in Israel, Taiwan, and Estonia, and what are lessons for the USA?

In my case studies, I focused on evaluating the citizen engagement dynamics, both digital and analog, with a predominant observation of the smart devices offered by local governments to advent new electronic citizenship facilities capable to refurbish the contemporary representative democracies in a more direct democracy fashion. My three case studies Taiwan, Israel, and Estonia are some of the most advanced digital democracies in the world, with a high penetration rate of technology. Taiwan is the number one provider of micro-components in the world, making its industry essential to the smartphones’ and computers’ global markets. The population benefits from an internet penetration rate of more than 83% overall. Science and technology are one of Israel’s most developed fields: the state spent the highest ratio in the world of its GDP in civil research and development in 2015. Local companies, students, and citizens benefit from many public and private tech hubs to support innovation. Estonia is famous as the digital nation because they developed the most advanced digital state facilities, which led to dematerialize 99,5% of the public services resulting in about 98% of all banking transactions and public interaction happening online. Interesting to know that the only offline services: buying a flat and getting married or divorced, remain offline by the decision of the government.

Taiwan, Israel, and Estonia are commonly three small countries, recently independent. Their modern economy arose in the ’90s after strategic choices of development in tech, science, and education, due to a lack of other natural resources than the human one to exploit autonomously. The fast transition to democracies sustained by free-market economies was urged by the necessity to support their existence as independent nations on the sidelines of robust less democratic regimes at their borders. In the three cases, the first customer, in crucial need of innovation, was the state: the public sector ordered a deep refurbishment or reconstruction of main infrastructures and public services. This state transformation created many opportunities for local entrepreneurs to develop companies dedicated to filling the demand in innovation, new technology, scientific research, and education. This dynamic has set the basis of a service economy with the best technicality levels and financial support to innovation. Secondly, the government helps companies reach global markets since they tend to communicate together on their achievement.

A big difference with the USA, which is common to those three countries, is that they are too small to self-sustain their markets. If their enterprises want to grow up to crucial stability scales, they need to look for customers abroad, which tends to force them to shape their businesses in the way to satisfy emerging markets, while the USA as a highly advanced and mature market can already scale nationally and grow successful unicorns and millionaires inside its own borders. As a result, the USA sometimes appears abroad as a dominant force willing to take over emerging markets to feed its own interests instead of a cooperating partner.

3) Based upon your findings what is the right balance for implementing disruptive technologies(e.g., autonomous vehicles, commercial drones, remote sensing/vision, data analytics, etc) for city planners to engage community stakeholders? How does this determine the adoption rate and success of such early trials/deployments? What are the lessons learned from high-profile failures?

The implementation of disruptive technologies is a tricky move since it needs collaboration of most stakeholders of the society, or at least a combination of elements while it usually implies a loss for existing actors who can’t adapt to the change. What made the success of Taiwan, Israel, and Estonia is to have invested in human resources and education to build their contemporary societies. As a result, a wide part of the population is aware of science and technology, works on research and innovation both into the academic and the private sectors, and the population is conscious that it needs to keep evolving and implementing new technologies to support their ideal position in the globalization phenomena. There is a collective intelligence over there that knows that they have more to win in accepting disruptive changes instead of sleeping on its past achievements. This is a mindset that is lacking in the oldest free-market economies and democracies nowadays, like the USA, Europe, or Japan.

This mindset does not mean that there is less failure in experimentations and early adoptions. The process of innovation and startups is the same everywhere and requires a lot of trials and errors before it gives satisfying results. For that reason, it can’t be otherwise than a collective process where stakeholders of the same ecosystem share the risks and the benefits together. Being a small national people in terms of demography, and having the consciousness of sharing a common destiny, helps in creating cohesion among the population, and so being naturally committed to its national success.

4) How has the pandemic changed your conclusions? Do you think this will accelerate or slow down the push towards automation and citizen technology in Cities? For example, in the USA we have seen a large number of urban dwellers move out to the suburbs with the growth of remote offices?

I haven’t studied the pandemic effects directly. We don’t have any zoom-out option on this unfortunate event yet, and much will depend on how long it stays. From my personal point of view, I received the confirmation that I made good career choices when I made myself an independent remote service provider of my industry, instead of applying for a regular position in a company, where I would have been more dependent on hierarchical decisions. What I can say from a comparison in between before and during pandemic ways of work, is that I look like less of an alien since there are more remote workers now, and more people are available to meet and work online. I would say that I personally felt at least one positive effect of this pandemic, which is the acceleration of the digital transformation. I truly believe that most populations of the work experienced the same and had time to question their post-pandemic habits. We can live a more sustainable lifestyle with less motorized mobility, relocate our activities to smaller local areas, and keep being productive through digital tools for most of us, the service economy workers.

5) What is your advice to entrepreneurs, especially roboticists, in tackling the problems of cities with unmanned systems?

All kinds of automation are great, BUT a city is about satisfying the quality of life of its residents before everything. Integrated dashboards with AI and robots, and tech-supported decision makings are a life-long technical dream of all generations of urban professionals, engineers, architects, but most people would agree that there would not be worse governance than the one of a scientist’s government. For the simple reason that humans are sensitive entities more than rational ones, highly unpredictable and so far never completely understood by any science.

My first advice would be to keep humble in its ambitions to change human peers. Our generation already benefits daily from the use of high-speed calculation infrastructures which are our smartphones, our computers, and all the digital tech behind us. Pervasive computing is promising unprecedented advances in human/environment interactions and the progress in the science of interfaces and robotization is looking for ways to make our lives more comfortable, lower our consumption of resources, and build more sustainable cities and lifestyles. Somehow this is just an extension of the famous laws of robotics published by Asimov in 1950: robots must be programmed to support human life, and not the contrary.

All my data analysis and AI models for smart cities which you can deploy on the cities of your interest are detailed in Democracy Studio book. It goes with online resources such as video tutorials and notebooks of code, accessible to programming newbies.

Further collaboration between Democracy Studio and UrbanAI is envisioned for the coming months, in the form of a working group on mutual topics of research. Follow us on social networks to stick around!



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Julien Carbonnell

Julien Carbonnell


Urban Developer & Scientist, founder @LandMinis3 // Machine Learning, Tokenized Real Estate