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On April 17, 2024, during AI Week, The GovLab and UrbanAI hosted a webinar on AI Localism, titled "Empowering Communities through Digital Self-Determination". The session aimed at investigating how AI governance can be localized to better serve community-specific needs.

Dr Stefaan Verhulst, the host and co-founder of the GovLab, introduced the session, emphasizing the significance of AI localism and digital self-determination in contemporary AI governance. The focus was on empowering communities and involving citizens in the governance of AI technologies, particularly at the city level.

The presentation highlighted that local governance can allow for a more nuanced approach to AI, one that can swiftly adapt to the specific ethical, cultural, and societal needs of individual communities. It also emphasized that local implementations enable cities to experiment with AI solutions tailored to their unique challenges, providing a laboratory for innovation that larger governance structures may lack. 

Dr Verhulst detailed how cities are increasingly taking on significant public challenges and stepping up to fill governance vacuums with innovative, local solutions to global issues. He introduced the AI Localism Canvas, a tool developed by GovLab to map out city-level responses to AI governance challenges. This tool illustrates how cities are crafting unique policies, enhancing AI literacy, and implementing laws tailored to local needs.

The webinar then delved into digital self-determination, discussing how it involves empowering communities to have a say in how AI is utilized in public spaces. This approach fosters a participatory governance model that not only engages but also educates citizens about their rights and the implications of AI.

Subsequently, the panel, moderated by Sara Marcucci (Research Fellow at The GovLab) and Hubert Beroche (Founder of UrbanAI), took place. The speakers were: Jacqueline Lu from Helpful Places, Antoine Bidegain of the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights in Bordeaux, Hector Dominguez from the City of Portland, and Carl Mörch from FARI in Brussels.

Jacqueline Lu spoke about the challenges of AI governance at the local level, emphasizing the often invisible and complex nature of AI systems embedded within urban environments. These systems, subtly integrated into public infrastructure like streetlights, public transit, and traffic systems, usually go unnoticed by the general public, making them challenging to understand and scrutinize. Jacqueline stressed the importance of making AI systems visible and understandable to empower local communities, allowing them to engage more meaningfully with the technology that affects their daily lives. To address these challenges, Jacqueline underscored the unique advantage of local AI governance, arguing that it allows for a detailed examination of the actual outcomes and impacts of AI on community life. Through AI governance efforts at a local level, it becomes possible to clearly see and discuss the specific effects these technologies have on individuals and communities. This level of detail in governance helps in identifying who is benefiting from and who is disadvantaged by AI systems, thus fostering a greater level of accountability and public participation.

Further, Antoine Bidegain shared insights from Bordeaux's experience with AI Localism, emphasizing the local government's adaptability in the face of rapidly changing technological landscapes. He discussed the challenges and responsibilities faced by local governments as AI and digital technologies transform urban environments and public spaces. This evolution compels local authorities to rethink their traditional roles and become more proactive in learning about and integrating these technologies. Bidegain stressed the importance of collective action and shared learning among cities to navigate the complex landscape shaped by AI and digital innovation, ensuring that technological integration serves the public good and maintains civic integrity.

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Hector Dominguez described Portland’s community-centric approach to AI, focusing on public engagement and transparency.  He highlighted Portland’s use of AI to enhance public services, such as improving emergency response times through the analysis of 911 call logs and the identification of households eligible for weather-related subsidies. This integration is steered by the city's commitment to core values including equity, transparency, and cooperation, ensuring that technology and policy developments align with the needs of its diverse population. Hector also discussed Portland's extensive public engagement strategies, which involve educational campaigns, collaborative events like the Open Data DiscoTech, and inclusive discussions that incorporate voices from various community sectors.

Carl Morch shared insights from FARI, a research institute based in Brussels, focusing on connecting AI, data, and robotics expertise from academia with local organizations. He described a significant mismatch where local groups lacked the resources and expertise to engage with AI-related projects while academic researchers sought more real-world applications and social impacts. To bridge this gap, the institute was established as an intermediary, helping to manage expectations, train organizations and facilitate projects between researchers and local entities.

Carl highlighted a practical step taken by FARI to enhance community engagement: relocating to a central and accessible location above Brussels’ central station. This move not only positioned the institute at a strategic and neutral meeting point but also allowed it to set up a Test and Experience Center. This public space offers interactive displays and activities to make AI and robotics more tangible and understandable for the public. Alongside, the institute offers free educational programs in multiple languages, focusing on AI fundamentals and European regulations, further supporting community engagement and literacy. This dual approach of project collaboration and education aims to foster a deeper public understanding and involvement in AI and data projects, reflecting a significant shift towards inclusivity and accessibility in technological education and application.

The webinar also featured an engaging Q&A session, where attendees had the opportunity to pose questions directly to the panelists. This segment allowed for a deeper exploration of specific issues and provided the audience with direct access to expert opinions. Questions ranged from technical aspects of AI implementation to ethical concerns and strategies for increasing community involvement in AI projects. The responses further illuminated the practical challenges and potential solutions in adopting AI locally, highlighting the dynamic interplay between technology and community needs.

The webinar highlighted the importance of integrating AI into local governance in a way that promotes transparency, ethical considerations, and public participation. The insights from each speaker highlighted the importance of empowering communities in AI governance, ensuring that AI deployments are not only technologically sound but also culturally and contextually appropriate. This community-centric approach to AI challenges the traditional top-down methods of technology governance and paves the way for more inclusive and responsive urban ecosystems.

To watch the recording of the webinar, see this link.