Group of people gathering in round tables

2024 Smart Region Summit explores the role of AI and the future of the city

“The world is moving fast, and the technologies we’re discussing plans for already exist.” 

This sentiment, shared by breakout presenter Jeff Melanson at the 2024 Smart Region Summit, is one felt by many.

For the sixth annual Smart Region Summit, Melanson — along with 300 participants and 25 additional presenters — convened to explore solutions at the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI), urban planning and digital equity. And, in doing so, keep pace with the rapidly evolving technology landscape. 

Arizona State University’s Chief Information Officer Lev Gonick is the host of the annual event, along with moderator Wellington “Duke” Reiter, executive director for University City Exchange.

“It's great to have you all here,” said Gonick in his opening remarks. “This year, we chose to intentionally make a bit of a transition to expand on our understanding of access to include new and important advances in AI.” 

A variety of panel discussions brought together professionals of various backgrounds – with some traveling from as far away as Canada and Europe – to engage in a day of thought-provoking discussions into how AI is shaping the way we have already started to build, plan and manage cities and regions.

Here are key takeaways from the discussions:

On determining what tasks AI can take on: “Rather than worrying about the global intergalactic replacement of professional people, we should be focused on specific tasks,” shared Phillip Bernstein, associate dean and professor adjunct at Yale University. “What we need to do is get to a higher level. We should be focusing the algorithms on the quantitative calculation tasks–the problem-solving–for which we have curated data. And then leave the more complex decision-making and the problem worrying to the human experts.”

Bernstein provided the morning keynote, followed by a reflection panel discussion with Senior Research Engineer at Georgia Institute of Technology Paula Gomez and CEO of Urbanitarian Honorata Grzesikowska.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego also took the stage during the Summit. Ahead of her fireside chat, participants received an advanced view of Season 3 of Carpool Convos, a video series that explores the future of tech and innovation from the backseat of an autonomous vehicle. The full episode is now available for streaming on YouTube.

On the importance of technology in urban planning and management: “I work with my fellow mayors several times a month to craft policy that transcends our physical boundaries,” shared Mayor Gallego. “We collaborate as 27 cities and three tribal nations on a variety of regional issues. And a real point of pride is that we have a regional collaboration around smart technology. In politics, you do not see unanimous consensus very often, and we have Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike behind this for hundreds of millions of dollars and investments in smart technology. So we're not just a smart city, but a smart region.”

On the best ways AI can be employed in terms of improving accessibility: “I see AI as a possible way of accurately figuring out where broadband can and should be deployed, and that is exciting to me” shared Gigi Sohn, an expert on telecommunications, media and technology law and policy. “It can be useful in really figuring out who has broadband access and who does not, who can afford it, and who cannot. This is not currently a very accurate data set right now. Each state is going through their own processes and I know they'll improve upon it. But still, this is an area where I think AI can be extraordinarily helpful.”

On AI being leveraged to create positive healthcare outcomes: “Unlike other technologies that were much more static and transactional, AI has its own life,” Nicol Turner Lee, senior fellow from The Brookings Institution, pointed out. “Here's why I'm excited: I do a lot of work in health disparities, for example, and I've been involved with the telemedicine debate. What I am seeing when we start to look at AI in healthcare, is that the aggregation of data that's being collected from patients that are in particularly marginalized communities is actually really high quality so that we're able to take this information and come up with some type of transformational solution.”

A reflection on the Summit: "What we're learning today is that people are using technologies to better understand the real world, the lives that people live – and what technologies are available to improve upon those lives, those communities, cities and regions," Summit moderator Reiter shared in closing statements.