Could this be the future of urban development? You are out and about and get a text message from your city: “Where should we put a new tram stop?” You want to reply straight away, as your child takes the tram to school and you want them to have as safe a journey as possible. By replying, you also get to see a real-time summary of other residents’ thoughts and can keep up to date on how the plans are progressing. You might also want to express your views on street lighting or cleanliness. Does the city need more bins and recycling facilities?
As you carry on running your errands, you get a message about a new leisure centre. The council has sent you a link to the planning alternatives, illustrated with the help of mixed reality. You can browse the visual models on your mobile and vote for your favourite alternative.
This kind of interaction is possible with the help of chatbots, or conversational artificial intelligence, which companies have already been using in customer service for some time. The first chat functions required a human customer service representative at the other end. Today, customers chat to programmed robots, which can assist them to quickly find information and services online. Chatbots can also perform simple functions, such as purchase tickets or book appointments. The most sophisticated versions make use of artificial intelligence and machine learning and are able to shift through vast amounts of data.
Although chatbots are still in their infancy, they are becoming more intelligent all the time. They will never replace traditional customer service completely, but they can answer simpler questions and refer trickier problems to human staff. At their best, chatbots save time, money and human resources. They give customers the information they need instantly and save them the trouble of searching through endless websites. A customer’s limited technological know-how is not an obstacle either: anyone who can use the text message function on their mobile is probably also able to converse with a chatbot. To make things even easier, chatbots can also be approached using a voice-operated assistant such as Siri, which eliminates the need for typing.
Chatbots are one way to open a dialogue between local authorities and residents and to increase transparency and participation. Many recent smart city strategies emphasise the need to involve different kinds of interest groups in urban planning in order to develop cities from the bottom up, together with citizens. There is no shortage of suitable tools and technologies to make this possible.
Calls for easier participation
Local authorities already use surveys, information events, workshops and youth panels to engage residents. A study conducted in Tampere surprisingly revealed that the demographic most difficult to engage are young adults and middle-aged people with busy lives, to whom the current methods of participation do not appeal. Residents’ meetings tend to attract senior citizens, and youth panels are effective for gauging young people’s views, but this age group’s hectic lifestyle leaves them with no time to attend events or fill in questionnaires. However, all age groups’ views are important.
New tools and techniques are needed to apply to involve as many people as possible. In other words, participating in collaborative urban development needs to be made easier and location-independent: people need to be able to contribute from the comfort of their sofa, during their commute or while stopping to rest on a park bench when out jogging. Old habits are often an obstacle to development. The bottleneck can be removed by using new technology to reorganise the system, revamp certain procedures and incorporate interaction with residents into the planning process. The full benefit of this kind of approach can only be realised by making it an integral part of the decision-making process and practices. Is using conversational artificial intelligence in urban development a utopian dream or a step towards a citizen-centric model where engagement is easy and services are provided fluently for residents?
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Senior Scientist, VTT