A Journey in Urban AI: Insights from Emerging Leaders – Shweta Gandhi

18.02.2024, All Things Urban and URBAN AI

In what ways can Urban AI enhance the quality of life in cities? In our series "A Journey in Urban AI," we explore this intriguing question with emerging leaders who are revolutionizing urban planning through artificial intelligence. This installment features [Shweta Gandhi](http://www.linkedin.com/in/shwetagandhi29) , an accomplished Urban Planner & Strategist currently working at AECOM and a graduate of the first edition of the Urban AI Emerging Leaders Program. With a rich background in strategic visioning, policy development, and urban analytics, Shweta holds an MSc in Sustainable Urban Development from the University of Oxford. She has a keen interest in urban AI and has focused on sustainable urban development and smart city concepts. Based in the Middle East, Shweta is dedicated to using urban AI to enhance urban efficiency and quality of life on a global scale. In this interview, she shares her journey into Urban AI, pivotal moments in her career, challenges, emerging trends, and advice for aspiring professionals in the field. Under the patronage of renowned architect, engineer, and MIT Professor Carlo Ratti, who directs the Senseable City Lab and is a founding partner of the international design office Carlo Ratti Associati, All Things Urban and the URBAN AI think tank are working towards launching a new edition of the Emerging Leaders Program and are actively seeking sponsors and partners for it. Join us in exploring the transformative possibilities for our cities of tomorrow in these interviews, and [reach out](mailto:[email protected]) if you believe that your organization would be interested in supporting the new edition as a partner and sponsor. #Journey into Urban AI **What inspired you to enter the field of urban AI, and how has your journey been so far?** Delving into the realm of Urban AI was a natural progression for me as an urban practitioner deeply invested in enhancing the quality of urban life. My curiosity initially sparked with a question: 'Can we measure the qualitative aspects of urban living in a quantitative way?' This query became more pronounced during my master's research at the University of Oxford, where I grappled with the complexities of urban studies. I recognized that unlike other fields, we cannot compare cities or urban experiences like 'apples to apples'; every city has its unique context, requiring its own set of criteria and parameters for assessment. That's where Urban AI emerged as a beacon of possibility. It offered a way to embrace the contextual nuances of urban environments while still providing a framework for quantitative analysis and comparison. Moreover, I observed how traditional our field is, often relying on conventional methods and perspectives. Embracing Urban AI seemed not just innovative but necessary – a step towards the future. I wanted to be at the forefront of this change, contributing to a shift that could redefine how we understand, measure, and improve urban life. My journey so far has been a blend of learning, challenging existing norms, and actively participating in shaping a new paradigm in urban studies. {{Pic1: Shweta Gandhi in Oxford, UK. Image courtesy of Shweta Gandhi.} #Pivotal Moments **Can you share a pivotal moment or project in your career that significantly influenced your perspective on urban development?** One pivotal moment in my career that significantly influenced my perspective on need for AI in Urban Development occurred during my master's studies in Sustainable Urban Development at the University of Oxford in 2021. A particular module, 'Leadership, Governance, and Future Cities,' briefly introduced Big Data and Urban AI. This sparked a deep interest in me, leading me to explore these concepts further. Post my studies, I joined AECOM Middle East, where I had the invaluable opportunity to work closely with esteemed professionals like Sanjay Tanwani, our Regional Director, and Charles Whiteley, the Global Digital Lead. Their openness to innovation and willingness to mentor a young urban practitioner like me was transformative. I was part of an exploratory project focused on developing digital twins in collaboration with a third-party service provider. This project allowed me to delve into identifying relevant data sets, defining key performance indicators, and understanding the scope and effort required for such an ambitious project. Although the project was research-driven and eventually came to a pause, it significantly fueled my enthusiasm to continue pursuing innovation in the Urban AI space. Simultaneously, I was also part of the Urban AI's Emerging Leaders Program, which further enhanced my ability to contribute meaningfully to the field. These experiences collectively shaped my understanding of how digital innovation and data-driven approaches can revolutionize urban development, making cities more sustainable, efficient, and livable. {{Pic2: AECOM Studio a day at work. Image courtesy of Shweta Gandhi.}} #Challenges and Overcoming Them **What have been some of the most challenging aspects of working in urban AI, and how did you overcome them?** Working in the realm of urban AI presents a unique set of challenges, which I believe are twofold. Firstly, there's a general lack of awareness about the possibilities that urban AI offers. Many people come from a traditional urban planning background and are unfamiliar with these new technologies. This creates a barrier when it comes to implementing AI tools in real-life projects, as there's often resistance due to the unknown. The second challenge is from a business perspective. Urban AI, being in its nascent stages, makes it difficult to quantify its return on investment (ROI) in traditional business terms. The urban design and planning industry has operated in a certain way for years, and introducing a new, technologically advanced approach requires a significant shift in mindset. To overcome these challenges, I've focused on education and demonstration. By educating colleagues and clients about the potential of urban AI, we can slowly shift the mindset towards a more open and innovative approach. Showcasing successful case studies where urban AI has reduced time, effort, and improved outcomes is crucial in proving its value. Although quantifying ROI in the early stages is challenging, I believe that ongoing research and development in this field will soon provide the necessary data to support this. I am optimistic about the future of urban AI. There are industry leaders who are actively advocating for digital transformation in urban development, and it’s exhilarating to be involved at this stage. Being part of this change, contributing to the evolution of urban planning, and overcoming these challenges is what makes my work in urban AI so fulfilling and exciting. {{Pic3: Attending Urban AI focused workshops at Expo 2020. Image courtesy of Shweta Gandhi.}} #Future Trends **In your view, what are the emerging trends in Urban AI that professionals should be aware of?** In my view, one of the most significant trends in urban AI is the evolution from using multiple, disparate software tools and scripts for task-specific purposes, towards the development of a more integrated toolkit. This integrated approach will be proficient in handling a variety of tasks, streamlining processes, and improving efficiency in urban planning and development. Another emerging trend in urban AI is the increasing use of predictive analytics and machine learning models to forecast urban growth and infrastructure needs. By analyzing large datasets, urban AI can provide insights into future population growth, traffic patterns, and environmental impacts. This predictive capability will enable urban planners to make more informed decisions, leading to more sustainable and efficient urban development. Moreover, there's a growing trend towards the use of real-time data analysis in urban management. With the proliferation of IoT devices and sensors, urban AI can now process real-time data to manage city services more effectively. This includes everything from traffic management to energy consumption, and even public safety. The ability to respond to urban dynamics in real-time marks a significant shift in how cities are managed and planned. Finally, urban AI is increasingly focusing on enhancing citizen engagement and participation in urban planning processes. AI tools are being developed to analyze public feedback and sentiment, enabling city planners to better understand the needs and preferences of the community. This trend towards more inclusive and participatory urban planning is crucial for creating cities that are not only smart but also responsive to the needs of their inhabitants. In summary, professionals in the field should keep an eye on these emerging trends: integrated toolkits for urban planning, predictive analytics for forecasting, real-time data analysis for city management, and AI-driven tools for enhancing citizen engagement. Staying abreast of these trends will be key to effectively navigating the future landscape of urban AI. #Advice for Aspiring Professionals **What advice would you give to someone aspiring to dive into the Urban AI sector?** Embarking on a career in the urban AI sector can be both challenging and immensely rewarding. The first piece of advice I would offer is to be prepared for skepticism. In an industry steeped in tradition, introducing AI and digital innovations can sometimes make you feel like an outsider, even to the point where your ideas might be dismissed or you might be seen as overly ambitious. It's important to stay resilient in the face of such challenges. One key factor that has helped me navigate this sector is finding the right mentor. A mentor who understands the nuances of the field and can guide you through its complexities is invaluable. They can not only provide insight and advice but also help in building your confidence and shaping your career path. Networking is another crucial element. Engaging with programs like the Emerging Leaders Program, which I had the opportunity to be a part of, can be a game changer. Such programs connect you with a network of like-minded professionals, opening doors to knowledge exchange, collaborations, and support systems. The relationships you build within these networks can be one of your greatest assets. My final piece of advice is to hold on to hope and perseverance. The journey in urban AI is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be moments of doubt and setbacks, but staying committed to your vision and goals is key. The industry is evolving, and your contributions can be part of that change. Stick to your path, keep learning, and gradually, you will see your efforts come to fruition. This is the hope that I hold onto, and it's what I encourage aspiring urban AI professionals to embrace as well. {{Pic4: Shweta Gandhi speaking at the Urban Future Conference. Image courtesy of Shweta Gandhi.}} #Career Guidance **What advice would you give to someone aspiring to make a mark in the urban AI sector?** If you're aspiring to make a mark in the urban AI sector, my foremost advice would be to stay inquisitive. The field is not just about mastering software or technical skills; it's equally about developing the ability to ask the right questions. This inquisitive mindset will drive innovation and lead to deeper understanding and better solutions. Alongside technical prowess, it's crucial to understand the business side of things. This includes recognizing business needs, understanding workflows, and identifying where AI can bring value. Part of this also involves being able to provide training and support to others in your team or organization, as you'll often be at the forefront of introducing new technologies and approaches. Be prepared for challenges and setbacks. You might try something new, and it might fail. It could be due to technological limitations, an incorrect approach, or constraints like time and budget. Remember that failure is an integral part of the learning process. What’s important is to learn from these experiences and continue to adapt and evolve. Resilience is key. You'll likely face more setbacks than successes, especially in the beginning. But it's crucial to stay persistent. As you navigate through these challenges, your perseverance will be your greatest asset. I've faced my share of backlash and obstacles, but I'm committed to staying the course. Eventually, the goal is to add significant value to the field of urban AI. {{Pic5: }} *Each interview in this A Journey in Urban AI series brilliantly showcases the transformative power of innovation in urban development. As All Things Urban and URBAN AI are preparing for the exciting launch of the second edition of the Emerging Leaders Program, we are actively seeking organizations eager to foster the next generation of urban AI talent. If your organization is ready to engage with and support these brilliant minds, please consider [reaching out](mailto:[email protected]) to us to discuss sponsorship opportunities. Your involvement could be a crucial catalyst in reshaping our urban future.*