Citizens must be involved in creating smarter digital cities

Ayesha Khanna, co-founder and CEO of ADDO AI, speaking at the Bentley Year in Infrastructure conference in Singapore.

The construction and infrastructure sector is often criticised for not clearly and in an accessible way illustrating the tangible benefits of its work to citizens. In my experience this is a charge that could be laid at the door of construction’s growing number of digital advocates, who come together at conferences and workshops and are so excited by the tech that they forget about its impact on those whose lives it affects the most.

So, it was a breath of fresh air to hear Ayesha Khanna, co-founder and CEO of ADDO AI, an artificial intelligence advisory firm and incubator, speaking at the Bentley Year in Infrastructure conference in Singapore, say passionately “It’s never the right way to start with the technology – you should always start with the problem.” Khanna repeatedly urged her audience to focus on citizens and the benefits of digital technology on real people’s lives and making them better for longer.

Khanna has been a strategic advisor on artificial intelligence, smart cities and fintech to a number of clients such as SMRT, Singapore’s largest public transport company, SOMPO, Japan's largest insurance firm and Smart Dubai, the government agency tasked to transform Dubai into a leading smart city. So, she knows her stuff and it was refreshing to hear her talk about smart cities in terms of how they can improve the lives of citizens, rather than the complexity of the technology being used to make them smart.

After all, said Khanna, “a smart city is not some big system in place, but a platform for data and artificial intelligence,” which can then be used to make people’s lives better. She cited the example of an AI-powered transportation app in Singapore that was joining up journeys to create a seamless experience for users to get them from A to B, quicker and more efficiently. “Human-centred cities and their transport infrastructure are personalised to resident needs, not dictated by technical engineering,” Khanna said, continuing her theme that technology should always be subservient to citizens.

She went on to explain how artificial intelligence is changing not only transport integration, it is integrating all aspects of people’s lives. It was vital to explain the holistic approach to digital applications, said Khanna, who pointed out that the boundaries between all industries are blurring because of AI. This brings with it big responsibilities for those who use data in the infrastructure sector. Effective governance was key, Khanna said. “If you are going to use data and AI then you have to govern it to protect citizens,” she said.

This was good to hear at a time when citizen scepticism about data use was rising and especially important when you consider that, according to the latest estimates, smart city solutions could improve quality-of-life indicators in cities by 10-30%. Increasing collection and application of data can’t be done over the heads of citizens, there must be genuine consultation, involvement and engagement with people by the industry, with best practice leaning towards co-creation of smarty city solutions.

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