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AI Holds the Key to Resilient Cities

Cities will play a central role in how the world addresses climate change, and if there is one factor that could give policymakers much-needed support, it is artificial intelligence. But access to technology and the skills required to use it effectively are proving to be major obstacles to implementation.

NEW YORK – The cities that some 4.4 billion people call home are increasingly at risk of catastrophic climate-driven events. Rising sea levels and flooding threaten coastal megacities like New York City and Jakarta, and extreme heat waves, like those that afflict cities across South Asia and the Middle East each year, are projected to become more frequent and severe.

While our built environments and infrastructure are being tested by unpredictable weather and changing populations, many urban communities are facing heightened climate-related health and economic risks. Dangers such as air pollution and natural disasters can be especially acute in developing countries, where they threaten to drive more people into poverty.

At the same time, cities contribute disproportionately to the broader challenges we face today. Cities already account for an estimated 70% of global carbon dioxide emissions and 78% of energy consumption, and these figures could grow in an urbanizing world. According to UN-Habitat, the share of people living in urban areas is expected to increase to 68% by 2050.

Clearly, cities will play a central role in how the world addresses climate change. One factor that could give cities much-needed support and unlock opportunities for building greater resilience is artificial intelligence. If developed and deployed responsibly and ethically, AI could potentially accelerate urban climate solutions, enable science-based and sustainable development, and deliver innovation at an unprecedented pace, allowing us to put the most vulnerable communities first.

But the first step is to improve our understanding of AI’s many potential applications as a tool for resilient cities. For example, the challenge of handling vast amounts of data is a major obstacle to modeling future climate scenarios accurately and making informed planning decisions. Fortunately, through the power of AI, foundation models and geospatial analytics could help us visualize our cities in a new way.

Consider the metropolitan areas facing severe and changing weather patterns. With real-time and historical climate data and AI-powered predictive capabilities, governments could introduce new tools for disaster response and readiness. Everyone, from ordinary citizens to those tasked with protecting and maintaining critical infrastructure, could be better informed and prepared.

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AI also has the potential to help make city operations more sustainable at every level, thus reducing cities’ outsize emissions and environmental impact. Intelligent software applications could integrate AI to analyze buildings’ energy usage, water consumption, and waste management, providing insights that allow communities and organizations to make more responsible decisions about sustainability.

Moreover, with the addition of connected devices to drive in-depth data collection, safety measures such as urban infrastructure maintenance could be more effective and efficient than ever before. Think of all the bridges and roadways threatened by unprecedented weather events. When combined with AI, the uses of data extend far beyond basic monitoring and reporting.

Nor will AI’s urban applications stop there. The technology has the potential to optimize public transportation and traffic planning to achieve more sustainable urban transit. It could help to identify the best locations for expanding much-needed green space, while also preserving urban biodiversity and natural resources.

Governments, public-service providers, and nonprofits alike have growing opportunities to access and explore AI tools, such as through requests for proposals and pro-bono programs, like those offered by IBM. However, recent research shows that while 69% of cities are already exploring or testing the uses of generative AI, only 2% are implementing it. As IBM’s Chief Impact Officer, I know that access to technology and the skills required to use it effectively can be major obstacles to implementation. The need for greater access becomes all the more urgent when one considers the unequal distribution of climate-driven threats. Within our cities, problems like air pollution and a lack of access to clean energy disproportionately affect the poorest and most vulnerable residents. These are the communities that have the most to gain from AI.

We all have a responsibility to make AI solutions support vulnerable populations. That means providing equal access to climate tools, supporting training in AI and related skills, and creating programs designed to respond to the specific needs of historically marginalized urban populations. Upskilling, especially, will play a key role in accelerating vulnerable communities’ adoption of climate-mitigation and adaptation tools. The private sector can do its part by forming partnerships with public agencies and working closely with organizations that are already engaged in supporting vulnerable communities.

By embracing AI and putting it to work in the fight against climate change, we can help make our cities safer, more adaptable, and more sustainable. The technology to give people the tools to anticipate, address, and recover from climate-driven events is here. But it is up to all of us – communities, governments, and companies – to put it to the best possible use.