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AI - a brave new world for cities

Above: AI panel contributors at 'Innovation Cities' Here East, from left: Sebastien Bonneau, Partner, Eversheds Sutherland LLP, Professor Mark Birkin, The Alan Turing Institute, Heather Fearfield of Future Cities Forum, The Mayor of Newham, Cllr Rokhsana Fiaz OBE, Gavin Poole, CEO Here East, Matthew Drinkwater, Head of the Fashion Innovation Agency/London College of Fashion, and Professor Dr Hassan Abdalla, Provost of the University of East London.

There has been much concern recently about the power of AI to take control of our lives with negative consequences, but what are the more positive uses that data collection and artificial intelligence skills training can give to communities in cities?

At our 'Innovation Cities' forum hosted by Here East, the future for data and AI was debated by our panel comprising The Mayor of Newham, Cllr Rokhsana Bifaz OBE, Professor Mark Birkin, The Alan Turing Institute, Gavin Poole, CEO, Here East, Matthew Drinkwater, Head of Fashion Innovation Agency/London College of Fashion, Professor Dr Hassan Abdalla, Provost of the University of East London and Sebastien Bonneau, Partner, Evershed Sutherland LLP - Data Centres and Digital Infrastructure Practice.

Questions were posed on how best to support young people and communities with training skills so that they are well placed to take advantage of AI related jobs in the future, how cities can be better planned using data, how AI can push the boundaries of innovative design, how AI can power healthcare simulations for training, and whether the UK government is investing enough in data connectivity to support the growth of tech businesses and clusters?

The Mayor of Newham, described her vision for data-related skills training in her borough:

'Our focus is in our manifesto and we must realise there is a fundamental challenge to face with difficult economic decisions about how to make the borough a prosperous place. Our agenda is looking to the future and in the face of disruption from Covid. We are also creating our first data campus and turning our town hall into a hub for life long learning and skills training, sitting alongside space for entrepreneurs and tech companies. We must ensure that young people are equipped with digital skills for the future and I am so glad to see local universities here today as we have a shared endeavour for future proofing and making the borough sustainable. We must grasp the opportunities in front of us and enhance the literacy of our young and old residents around data protection issues.

'We are working with local and national partners on education from the first years to older ages. We are about to launch our education vision and this involves harnessing life experiences as well to equip them as they grow up for the world of work. We must be aware of diversity and particularly women in the borough. I am myself taking a post graduate qualification in data science and working with my senior leadership team on the scale of potential that data and AI can bring to our prosperity in the borough. There are issues to address on data about privacy and women. We are also a very young borough and we will have more under 24-year olds here than over that age in the coming years. What can we do to stop particular groups including women from being marginalised? I am optimistic that we can prevent that by working with established groups run by and for women and girls.'

Here East CEO, Gavin Poole commented further on grasping educational opportunities around AI and data:

'There is a lot of concern about the future for power networks, especially for the National Grid and sustainable, green power. If you look at how AI will impact future cities then AI should actually reduce the use of power. How will it do this? By optimising power networks making sure power is there at the right time and at the point of need for hospitals and schools and so on. Using AI to bring efficiencies across the transport network could be important. The opportunity for cities sits, I believe, around education . It's phenomenal what the Mayor of Newnham, with us here today, is doing on on skills in the borough.

'If you look at FE news today, you'll see an article about Here East. Education needs to start teaching about AI. There will be divergence of intellect and divergence of opportunity for those who have been taught how to utilise AI. How to use this to best effect to teach our youngsters how AI is to be embraced and not put away in a cupboard and not left because AI is thought to be 'bad'. AI is not bad, it is good. We use AI everyday, and you are using AI all the time is you are using an app for instance. Ninety seven million jobs will be created by 2024 as a result of AI according to the World Economic Forum. Within this there is a huge opportunity for cities - the optimisation, the job creation, the economic growth, the reducing of inflation. Link it back to AI and everybody can have a house.

'Our success has been based on having a clear vision and sticking with it, and also working with local communities where we can. We can always do more. It is also due to heavily curating the environment here in terms of the right type of companies and universities who arrive and take space, who are focused on technology and those who are moving into Deep Tech and cyber security, for instance. We love the arts but we are here to do something around technology. We genuinely believe we don't have competitors. What we are interested in is building relationships with other hubs and campuses around the UK and the world, to leverage off each other so the opportunity is not just locked into Here East- whether it's Brazil, Quebec, Arizona or Luxembourg.'

How we encourage the better planning of cities to tackle the big issues of disease control and net zero neighbourhoods was taken up by Professor Mark Birkin of the Alan Turing Institute

'Our work is around modelling analysis of cities and there are opportunities to take advantage of big data, smart data and what this can tell us about the behaviour of people, how we all move around cities to help with planning. There is a big data revolution and vast reserves to help us understand issues and test for solutions to improve the environment of cities. There is more data than capability to turn it into intelligence at the moment and currently for example there are difficulties to access data from mobile telephones. We need to ask what real or artificial intelligence do we need to improve the better planning in cities?

'We do not want robots designing our cities and I don't think that will happen anytime in the future. Design of cities will remain a human process but there are important issues to think about around designing cities better to manage outbreaks of pandemics or encourage low traffic neighbourhoods. I think this is something everyone can agree on is a good idea. There is definitely a positive benefit in understanding how movement patterns encourage outbreaks of Covid-19. We do not have the capacity as planners to do everything and we need AI to help us. We need to respond and manage disease in cities and also how to create net zero cities by harnessing the power of data. It can help us on how to provide the right infrastructure for cycling through cities or create appropriate mixes of housing built in the right locations. We can also predict human behaviours.'

The design of cities alongside fashion innovation was an area that Matthew Drinkwater of the Fashion Innovation Agency (part of the London College of Fashion) commented on:

'I love the dystopian vision of AI as 'Terminator' or us managed by robots! One of the things that excited me about the move east to Stratford was the prospect of the London College of Fashion collaborating with UCL to make fashion-designing robots who design cities as a side hustle. What we have managed to do at LCF is to build the understanding of technology and the use of a skill-set of immersive tech. In 2019 we started to work closely with AI, running a course with MIT. (In the global fashion industry) we are producing too much product and too much waste. There is a much smarter way of delivering clothes.

'Fast fashion may be a threat to designers, but at the core of the industry the top designers have the ability to go beyond. I always go back to the accountancy model, the automating of tasks so we do less work. We can get incredible images now using AR / VR and AI. We are on the verge of making something very new and very exciting for the fashion industry.'

The Fashion Innovation Agency, part of the London College of Fashion, has been working on a variety of ground-breaking projects, including the Meta-Catwalk, which showcases how AI-generated imagery can be integrated with real-life runway to create innovative and engaging images, and also for The National Gallery, London.

An innovative collaboration between VFX and AI artist Atara and the Fashion Innovation Agency the Meta-Catwalk project used cutting-edge AI-generation and VFX technology to create a hyper-realistic runway inspired by the distinctive style of iconic fashion designers to showcase the possibilities of AI-assisted generative art and how it can push the boundaries of self-expression and creativity.

Volumetric footage captured by the Fashion Innovation Agency and Volograms was used to recreate virtual characters and the original sixteenth-century Italian church setting for a new virtual reality experience produced by Focal Point VR for the National Gallery. which said:

‘‘Virtual Veronese’ has enabled us to understand how immersive storytelling can add depth of experience, meaning, and emotion to Gallery visitors’ engagement with our paintings.’

Above: 'Virtual Veronese' at the National Gallery London (Courtesy National Gallery, London)

Moving back to skills training in the discussion, Professor Dr Hassan Abdalla, Provost of the University of East London, joined the panel to talk about simulations of real-life hospital and healthcare environments to assist in training and thought leadership of the UEL students:

'What we have been doing over the last 4 years and in the pandemic is examining and re-imagining our business model. We are not just an education institution as we are an anchor organisation needing to make impact in the borough of Newham so we are important for the local community. We need to understand the ambitions of our graduates of 156 nationalities who are global citizens, so we need be both global and local in our outlook.

'Projects we are creating include the simulated healthcare training hub driven by the metaverse, opened by King Charles earlier this year. How do we create a safe but coherent environment, and how do we stimulate the thinking of these students, make these people (future) thought leaders. Using AR / VR they can zoom into specific healthcare issues in a hospital and operating theatre. This has been imaginatively used for training. We also have the Living Lab with the Prince's Foundation...helping to have deep understanding of how babies brains develop over time. Health Education England has been supporting as as they see this as an important change in the direction of education.'

'We have been working with hundreds of businesses / SMEs, and on net zero with Siemens...asking .how do we equip and scale the workforce? We have used the Living Lab to enable students and developers to simulate real life data to see what a local district looks like, and we simulate cities to look at autonomous transport. How do we develop the energy smart grid is another current project.'

On the topic of green energy and the building sufficient power networks, Sebastien Bonneau, Partner in the Data Centres and Digital Infrastructure Practice at international law firm Eversheds Sutherland, had concerns:

''All that we have discussed today is very positive but the harsh reality is that with all the interest in AI you need more data centres and more digital infrastructure. You need three elements: data centres - the places where you store computer data, then power, and connectivity. If you are missing one element then things don't work - your phones, your laptops, the internet. This problem is acute because AI needs massive amounts of computer power. There is serious friction between the ideal vision of a connected society and the reality of when it can be provided.

'Connectivity has been seriously under-invested in the last 20 years. Power is a serious issue.. There is not enough power from the Grid for housing and for data centres. We still have problems in the city centre of London with connectivity. To power AI you need two types of data centre. Bigger centres, that can be located outside cities and then smaller ones (in urban settings). There's the big idea and then how do you deliver it? We all need to work together to make it happen.

'In Dublin 14% of electricity went to data centres and 12% went to housing. Governments are cautious and careful in Europe. Investors want to to invest but they won't if the data centre can't be turned on. Many want to invest but the reality is that they won't unless the power is in place.'

Future Cities Forum was grateful to the very high standard of contribution that our panellists provided on this important area of the growth and development of data and AI.


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