Summer Night Smart City anyone? Ethics, Psychology and Artificial Intelligence in future city planning

ABBA’s famous song Summer Night City was released 40 years ago and was created as a tribute to happy and inspirational Stockholm. In 2017, the Stockholm City Council adopted a strategy City Vision 2040, developed together with its citizens, for making Stockholm the smartest city in the world. Would it turn Stockholm into a Summer Night Smart City?

Good songs and lively cities make us feel joyful, as they create a warm and safe space that encourage connection and collaboration. In music, one can experiment with sound arrangement by blending natural and artificial sounds using different instruments. In city planning, it is about “space arrangement” as one needs to anticipate the future uses of physical space, taking into account changing economic, environmental, demographic, cultural or transportation needs of citizens. The word citizen can even be fetched as the zen of cityness, or an urban feeling of connectedness.

Lately, the topic of Artificial Intelligence (AI) makes headlines everywhere. Despite the hype, the notion of AI triggers feelings of ambivalence since we are fascinated by the future benefits AI could bring for humans and society, yet uneasy about potential challenges related to their supposedly unprecedented capabilities. In the area of future city planning and urban development, we need to safeguard the quality of human lives, including human rights, citizens’ safety and security, city’s attractiveness, fairness and sustainability. To this end, we need to consider psychological, societal and ethical questions alongside the technical issues associated with AI’s rapid development and utilization. What if the technical development accelerates faster than the moral and psychological understanding related to AI applications? Moreover, people are not pixels: recent urban psychology research is concerned with cities being seen “mechanistically, as inanimate clumps of buildings and technology, which misses their essential human nature”.

Human experience and behavior are at all times contextual. The local rationality principle posits that we make decisions based on what makes sense to us provided the goals, local conditions and group norms, or the beliefs about proper way of acting in different situations. We are part of the context that affects how we act. How to ensure we, as humans, can deal with unintended consequences as long as AI collects and connects contextual clues, makes decisions and performs a range of activities? How about “sensemaking” for robots? Attachment theory refers to the dynamics of relationships and bonding: concepts such as ‘place identity’ and ‘place attachment’ suggest that the place we live has profound impact on our sense of self, belonging, purpose and meaning in life. Understanding how people interact with the environment and infrastructure in a city shapes a meaningful design and city planning. The future urban landscape needs to accommodate diverse and multicultural needs. Social identity theory indicates that ethnocentrism results when people categorize themselves into emotionally significant groups. In organization science, this can be related to the notion of faultlines, introduced a decade ago by Lau and Murnighan (1998) as hypothetical divisions based on different attributes, which can potentially trigger “us-versus-them” relationship dynamics. A typical big city abounds with multitude of differences of views, cultures or religions. How AI can be used to “melt” the faultlines, mitigate inequalities and build trust and sustainability? How to create cities with a healthy heartbeat, that we all love to live in?

“AI is just an extension of our existing culture”

One of the great promises of AI is to eliminate human weaknesses, such as cognitive biases in decision-making. The general assumption is that AI is logical and objectively rational. However, a new study that used a psychological tool such as Implicit Association Test shows that AI can be biased since it learns from humans: it acquires cultural biases embedded in the patterns of wording and effectively adopts cultural stereotypes. “AI is just an extension of our existing culture”, says Joanna Bryson, one of the authors in the study, a computer scientist at the University of Bath in the UK and Princeton University. A recent MIT study also found gender and skin-type bias in commercial AI systems. How a machine will decide what to do when facing ethical dilemmas? There is a need to encourage an active and genuine dialogue between technology experts and social scientists on how intelligent machines are impacting society. Now is the time to consider the “design, ethical, and policy challenges that AI technologies raise”, says Barbara Grosz, Professors at Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Prof. Grosz is chairing the AI100, the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence, aiming at anticipating how the effects of AI will flow into every aspect of our lives.

ABBA was an awesome and adorable song-writing and singing “hit machine” with a lasting effect on generations. These days, ABBA is again under the spotlight in Finland for a good reason: the musical Mamma mia! will debut in Helsinki in May 2018 for the first time in Finnish language. Thrilling songs sound in thriving cities.


Nadezhda Gotcheva
Senior Scientist

Leave a Reply