Achieving smart city climate commitments with AI

Kaisa Sibelius, Project Manager at Forum Virium Helsinki and AI4Cities Coordinator, and Philipp Tepper, Sustainable Economy and Procurement Coordinator at ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, explain how the European project, AI4Cities, aims to speed up and steer the creation of new breakthrough solutions in how AI can support cities’ climate action commitments.

What is AI4Cities?

K: AI4Cities is a pre-commercial procurement (PCP) project focused on procuring R&D of solutions that support cities’ transition to carbon neutrality via artificial intelligence (AI) and related enabling digital technologies. Based on this, two key domains linked to the cities’ strategies and carbon-positive goals have been pre-selected: mobility and energy. 

This PCP is done by a Buyers Group integrated by leading European cities in the intersection of ‘smart cities’ and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction: Forum Virium Helsinki (City of Helsinki), City of Amsterdam, Cap Digital (Paris Region), City of Copenhagen, City of Tallinn and City of Stavanger. 

PCP is a method for public buyers to buy R&D from several suppliers in parallel, and to steer development of solutions to meet their needs. The end-result, including the intellectual property rights (IPR), remain with the suppliers. The pre-commercial procurement process consists of three clearly defined phases: Solution design phase, Prototype phase, and Prototype testing phase. In each of these phases significant budgets are available for suppliers to support their work – the total budget being up to €4.6 million.

AI4Cities will combine the city partners’ unique knowledge, tools and vibrant ecosystems, with a challenge-based PCP competition on developing unique innovative solutions.

What is the key aim of the project?

K: Right now, it is the time to direct AI research and innovation towards societal needs – to task AI developers with detailed, pragmatic and solvable ‘missions’ from the cities’ climate action plans. Through these missions, this project will create breakthrough, scalable, European solutions for these specific needs, and thus lead to immediate, concrete and measurable emissions’ savings. More importantly, it will give examples of how to create, impact and deliver a better future, for the whole of the AI community, as well as for all European cities and citizens.

The window of opportunity for European AI leadership is closing fast in the competition between solutions coming from the U.S. and China, and this makes the kind of AI solutions which govern us in the future of great policy interest for Europe. At the same time, urban emission reduction ambitions in most of the cities are set so high that many of them are not realistically achievable without exploiting best-in-class ICT technologies.

AI4Cities will combine the city partners’ unique knowledge, tools and vibrant ecosystems, with a challenge-based PCP competition on developing unique innovative solutions

The Buyers Group members are all committed to becoming carbon neutral. Copenhagen is a world leader with the ambition of becoming carbon neutral by 2025. Helsinki also has one of the most ambitious targets, being committed to become carbon neutral by 2035. The strategies of both the region of Paris and the City of Tallinn have the goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and Amsterdam wants to cut its carbon emissions by 95 per cent by 2050. The City of Stavanger aims to reduce its GHG emissions by 80 per cent by 2030, and to be fossil-free by 2040. 

What challenges in the mobility/transport industry is the project looking to overcome?

K: While all cities are different, the largest opportunities for emission reduction in European cities are very similar. The highest common reduction targets in most cities’ climate action plans are in transport and in buildings’ energy use. 

Transport generates about 20-25 per cent of all climate emissions. Of this, road transport accounts for about 75 per cent and private cars for about 50 per cent. The most effective means of reducing emissions in the transport sector are the reduction of private cars and the electrification of transport. Unnecessary travel can also be reduced by investing in different digital services and teleworking.

One obvious advantage is that machines work tirelessly and can handle enormous amounts of data

Increasing the energy efficiency of transport by electrifying public transport on rails and roads, and reducing the need for heavy transport and private cars are other things to look into. The urban city structure and the year-round cycling paths, which support walking and cycling in addition to public transport, are playing a key role in the mobility transformation.

Cities of the AI4Cities project have recognised many areas where they see possibilities for utilising AI to solve challenges related to traffic. 

At the moment, on the traffic side you can put them under the following domains: best design for walking and cycling, optimisation of cargo/parcel flows, AI to improve traffic flows, and traffic management/control and dynamic pricing. These challenges will be defined further during the Open Market Consultation phase of the project together with different stakeholders and potential suppliers. 

traffic flow

Do you think AI will become the norm in the future of urban mobility?

K: AI helps in traffic management and optimisation because it can analyse big amounts of different kinds of data, from sensors or live video. Low-level AI collects and analyses data, recognises exceptions and emergency situations in traffic. High-level AI can perform traffic optimisation and forecast traffic flows and reorganise trams when something unexpected has happened, for example.

Cities of the AI4Cities project have recognised many areas where they see possibilities for utilising AI to solve challenges related to traffic

AI will be needed when all vehicles (buses, parcel delivery, drones) become autonomous and moving on the roads and in the air will be more versatile than today. 

One obvious advantage is that machines work tirelessly and can handle enormous amounts of data.

There are also limitations and challenges related to AI, such as legal and ethical issues, as well as responsibilities and rules. There has been discussion on who is making the final decisions and how to keep that role in humans. 

Traffic management can cause conflicts when many optimisation tools are working simultaneously but independently. For example, couriers’ and city’s objectives can be opposite. 

AI needs plenty of computing power in data centres in the cloud. That’s why there is a need to be aware of it and optimise energy consumption of AI. 

What are the main benefits for cities using innovation procurement and what is the replicability potential of AI4Cities?

P: Innovation procurement can bring multiple benefits to cities: it can support their modernisation, it can respond to new needs and trigger the development of solutions that are not in the market yet, and it can boost the role of cities as market mobilisers, particularly by being a launching customer. Cities involved in AI4Cities will use PCP that financially supports businesses, particularly SMEs and start-ups, to develop prototypes.

Other cities around Europe and beyond can join an international group to follow the pre-commercial procurement phases. ICLEI will be responsible for recruiting them. By being part of this group, they can learn how to implement a PCP in their cities and use it for their own needs, and they can get first-hand knowledge about the AI solutions developed by suppliers and procure them if interested.


headshot of Kaisa

Kaisa Sibelius

Kaisa Sibelius is an experienced project manager and has over 15 years’ experience in project management from national and international projects in different fields of new technologies and innovation as well as SME business development.

She has worked in Forum Virium Helsinki since 2010. Forum Virium Helsinki was established in 2006 as an innovation company owned by the City of Helsinki. It contributes to digitalisation and climate goals of the City of Helsinki in the main focus areas: smart city, smart mobility, IoT, AI and open data by co-creating, piloting and experimenting urban futures with companies, the scientific community and residents. Currently it is running two PCP projects and about 40 other smart city projects in Finland and EU countries.

headshot of Phillip

Philipp Tepper

For more than 12 years Philipp Tepper has worked as Coordinator and Senior Expert for ICLEI contributing to global, European and national projects on Sustainable Public Procurement (SPP). His focus is on developing research and guidance on social responsible public procurement (SRPP), costs and benefits, criteria and tools, innovative approaches in public procurement (pre-procurement, early market engagement, LCC-CO2 tools, supply chain mapping) and legal requirements and opportunities within SPP.