Blog - Research

Smart Cities & IA : discussion with Chelsea Collier (Digi.city)



On June 6, 2023, the Smart City Institute was delighted to welcome Chelsea Collier to Liège as part of the UER Management research seminars at HEC Liège. Chelsea Collier is the co-founder of the forum Digi.City, based in Austin (Texas, USA), which supports the co-creation of Smart Cities and more connected communities. She is also a doctoral student at the School of Information (iSchool) at the University of Texas at Austin. The seminar was an opportunity to discover Chelsea Collier's research on the role of ethical AI in the development of Smart Cities, and to learn more about her experience with Smart Cities in the USA. 

Blog - ITW Chelsea Collier

Our Partnerships and International Relations Coordinator, Audrey Lebas, took time to discuss this a bit further with her over a coffee, and proposes you a summary of her interview with Chelsea Collier in the article below.

Chelsea, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your work at Digi.City?

Instead of following a traditional career path, I've always followed my curiosity and interests. I've worked in the private sector, in start-ups, in the public sector, in the non-profit sector and now I'm starting a new adventure in academia.The thing that is consistent across all of these different experiences is the concept of connecting people, ideas, programs and projects.

At its core, that is the purpose of Digi.City - to showcase the alignment between Smart Cities and social good. Our work can take many forms - from articles and events to research publications and personal projects. Instead of defining a strict set of activities, I decided to be a little more organic and create a forum to bring together people working in the intersection of citizens, infrastructure and the ethical application of technology.

What is your definition of a Smart City?

I appreciate and respect the many definitions of a Smart City, but at its core, I believe a Smart City is essentially the application of urban analytics to improve the quality of life for citizens, residents and visitors.

From a technical perspective, it's as simple as sensing devices that collect data, which is shared over a wired or wireless network, then analyzed to achieve specific goals. But the technical definition is not the most interesting or even the most important part of a Smart City. The true power of a smart city is engaging the members of a city - the community - in determining how to create better outcomes. This can be focused on mobility/transportation, sustainability, energy, water and air quality, or other aspects.

Incidentally, I usually try to use the term "community" instead of the word "city", as it is a more human-centric term. A community is a grouping of people (which can be defined by an infinite combination of parameters!) whereas a city is simply a geographical boundary for a metropolitan population. But the term "smart" can be applied wherever it is possible to collect and analyze data from connected sensors. We could be talking about smart cities, smart villages, or even smart islands! The concept of community is malleable and fluid - a community can be defined (and redefined). I like the idea of communities that are flexible, adaptive and constantly evolving. A community defines a city - that's an exciting idea for me.

What are the main differences in identity you've noticed between Smart Cities in Belgium/Europe and Smart Cities in the USA?

My experiences in Europe and Belgium (most recently in Liège!) are always so restorative. There's a sense of shared purpose and a common framework, even if there's still open debate about the implementation of Smart Cities. In the United States, the perspective is more individualistic. We lack unified guidance at the federal level. For example, the EU has adopted the GDPR, but the US is still debating the need for a common data management framework. I'm excited about the work being done by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the establishment of nationwide guidelines for the ethical use of artificial intelligence (AI).

Another important distinction between the EU and the US is the focus on sustainability and carbon reduction/neutrality. For some US cities, this is a priority, but it's certainly not ubiquitous. Of course, I'd like to see greater emphasis from U.S. cities, regions, and states to support sustainable smart city efforts. 

You're also currently doing a PhD at UT Austin's ISchool. What is the focus and aim of this research?

I returned to University of Texas at Austin in the fall of 2022 to begin my PhD because I believe academic research has a lot to contribute to the Smart Cities movement. It can be difficult to bridge the gap between academic, government, industry, and social sectors - and in this convening area is where I am happiest!

I was also inspired by the interdisciplinary Good Systems program, which is a "UT Grand Challenge" aimed at deeply understanding and addressing the complex issue of ethical AI. I have the honor of working with Good Systems as a Graduate Research Assistant (GRA) and doctoral student advised by Dr. Ken Fleischmann.

My research focuses on how ethical AI can encourage public engagement, particularly with underrepresented audiences. It can be hard for citizens and residents to feel "heard" by their city. I'm convinced that technology, including AI, can contribute massively to this mission in an ethical way.

How does your current research stay at CityScienceLab in Hamburg (Germany) support this research?

The City Science Lab - Hamburg at HafenCity University has been an ongoing inspiration to me for many years. This group of researchers addresses urban inequalities and employ emerging technologies, including digital touch tables, virtual and augmented reality (AR/VR) tools, digital twins and more, to encourage greater citizen engagement and participation. Combining human and artificial intelligence to create more inclusive and sustainable cities is, hopefully, the future for everyone. This work is one of the primary reasons I decided to pursue a PhD and so the opportunity to be in Hamburg this summer and work alongside these teams is a real dream come true. I've only been here in Hamburg for a few weeks and the experience is already transformative. I look forward to telling you more soon!

A final word: what was your favorite place in Liège during your short stay?

Ah, there are so many beautiful places and I truly enjoyed them all. To be honest I can’t choose just one - I love being in the middle of a city, exploring its character. It was really interesting to be here as the city tram systems is being completed. I’m sure there are challenges being experienced by the residents and visitors due to construction but I”m also sure the result will be wonderful. I hope I get to experience the “during” as well as the “after.” In other words, I’d love to return to Liège!

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