6 Ways Robots Are Changing City Planning and Development

Of course artificial intelligence has applications relevant to the practice of city planning.

6 minute read

September 25, 2019, 2:00 PM PDT

By Kayla Matthews @KaylaEMatthews


jessie essex / Flickr

While artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning solutions are revolutionary, they tend to exist solely in a digital realm. We can use AI to do some incredible things, including for automation, yet the physicality of the technology needs more support. The solution is to simply pair AI and automation systems with robotics. Together, the resulting machines can do so much more.

Consider SAM100, a semi-automated mason and bricklaying robot that can work six times faster than its human counterparts. The systems used within SAM are a mixture of AI, robotics, and 3D printing technologies.

These technologies are being used to advance the manufacturing and construction fields, but they're also going to have an impact in urban environments, especially in city planning and development.

Several major cities are already using these technologies to introduce automation, earning them the name “robot cities.” Tokyo, Singapore, and Dubai are just a few examples.

It’s not so important where this is happening, but how and what these technologies are being used for.

1. General Robotics Use

As Tokyo prepares to host the 2020 Olympics, the government has teamed up with the Robot Revolution Realization Council to leverage modern robotics for general usage applications. The city has deployed a wide variety of robotically powered solutions, including taxis and public transport, smart wheelchairs, and customer service bots.

Tokyo is showing the world what a true robot city of the future will look like. A state-controlled environment will deploy robotics, AI, and convenient solutions throughout an urban area. The goal is not just to make living smarter and more convenient for citizens, but also visitors. Customer service robots, for example, will greet local and foreign visitors alike, conversing in more than 20 different languages. 

The greatest benefit is how robotics will be used to plan, organize, and automate living experiences within city limits. Entire blocks or subsections of an urban environment can be designed to service those thriving within its boundaries.

2. Interpreting Industry Foundation Classes to Improve BIM Software

Researchers from Purdue University have developed a system for interpreting and analyzing industry foundation classes, also known as IFCs. This is the term used to denote data created by building information modeling (BIM) software.

The new method speeds up the interpretation process by injecting a smart, automated element. Most IFC data is incredibly complex, because it’s not just detailed but also incorporates a large number of entities. Purdue University's tech helps software developers better understand the datasets they are using. It also creates IFC solutions for virtually any task during the lifecycle of an architectural, engineering, or construction project.

The result is a new method for creating modern AEC designs, including those that introduce more sustainable infrastructure.

3. Smart Management and Control

Singapore has also been experimenting with robotics by augmenting various aspects of the city. That’s where the similarities end, however, as Singapore is focused on a different objective entirely.

Nearly all the robotics systems deployed in the city are meant to modernize and improve the management and controls of various functions. The robots serve as an extension to the existing smart urban ecosystem. Examples include autonomous delivery robots, driverless bus shuttles, and state-subsidized service robots that act as maids.

Robotics is making a significant impact within the health and social care fields. Robots are being used for early childhood education to not only teach younger audiences how to interact with robots, but also to improve the general understanding of the world of young people. In health care, robots are being used to improve operations and care. Transport robots are even used to move documents, drugs, testing materials, and more.

Smarter management and controls mean the city can be more reactive to its inhabitants and visitors. Imagine automatically powered public transportation fleets that can accommodate a growing population or large group of visitors. Entire buildings can employ smart control systems to produce light only in areas that are being used.

4. Policing and Surveillance

Dubai, currently aiming to become the happiest city on Earth, is another example of a state-controlled smart city. Like Singapore and Tokyo, it plans to implement robotics for use in public services, transportation, and more.

Dubai stands out because it’s also using technology to improve policing and surveillance. The government recently announced plans to robotize up to 25% of its police force by 2030. Pal Robotics’ humanoid police officer and an innovative vehicle called OUTSAW will make it happen.

These automated systems will patrol the city’s limits and help keep the streets and its inhabitants safe.

5. Improving Low-Resource Communities

There are impoverished areas or less-fortunate neighborhoods in many cities where both inhabitants and events tend to go unnoticed—not necessarily out of negligence or neglect, but because of how bustling urban environments tend to be.

With the help of smart technologies, these less-serviced and low-resource communities can be properly supported. The improved efficiency means more funds should be available to funnel into these communities.

New opportunities will also present themselves to help bolster the falling conditions. Old, withering roadways can be repaved and repurposed with the help of robotic total stations. Aging buildings can be repaired, remodeled, or even rebuilt using similar technologies and 3D printing.

Solutions can also be leveraged to take care of people, too. Imagine an AI algorithm that can account for all the food wasted or thrown away by restaurants, siphoning it to areas of need. A food bank or local community center can be allotted hundreds of pounds of free or cheap quality foods. Another might be able to discern and highlight job opportunities for those in need of work.

6. Smarter Development Overall

One of the major concerns within the confines of modern cities is how best to use open space, or even how to repurpose old properties and buildings. Space is limited in places like New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Istanbul, which are all packed to the brim with people and buildings.

When designing, developing, or repurposing space, it helps to know not just what’s in high demand but also what would be more beneficial for the city. Maybe an area needs more low-income housing. What if a small-business center will boost the local economy? Perhaps there are dilapidated or abandoned structures that could be put to better use.

AI and city planning solutions could help account for these situations, aiding in the choosing of a facility so it’s applied in the best way possible. A company called Spacemaker has already created simulation software that uses AI to help architects and urban planners make better development and planning decisions, faster.

The same technologies can be used to develop and create structures using 3D printing and low-cost solutions.

Get Ready for the Smarter Cities of Tomorrow

As Tokyo, Singapore, Dubai, and cities like them have shown, the technologies necessary to power the smart cities of tomorrow are already here.

Whether robotics is being applied to construction and development, public services and transport, or the more informed management of urban resources, modern cities have a lot to gain from its incorporation.

Kayla Matthews

Kayla Matthews is a journalist and writer covering future tech and infrastructure topics for publications like The Week and VentureBeat. In her free time, she also manages and edits her tech blog, ProductivityBytes.com.

Large blank mall building with only two cars in large parking lot.

Pennsylvania Mall Conversion Bill Passes House

If passed, the bill would promote the adaptive reuse of defunct commercial buildings.

April 18, 2024 - Central Penn Business Journal

Aerial view of Oakland, California with bay in background

California Exodus: Population Drops Below 39 Million

Never mind the 40 million that demographers predicted the Golden State would reach by 2018. The state's population dipped below 39 million to 38.965 million last July, according to Census data released in March, the lowest since 2015.

April 11, 2024 - Los Angeles Times

A view straight down LaSalle Street, lined by high-rise buildings with an El line running horizontally over the street.

Chicago to Turn High-Rise Offices into Housing

Four commercial buildings in the Chicago Loop have been approved for redevelopment into housing in a bid to revitalize the city’s downtown post-pandemic.

April 10, 2024 - Chicago Construction News

Purple jacaranda trees in bloom in Los Angeles with tall white Art Deco buildings in background.

LA County Releases Draft Community Forest Management Plan

LA County's Chief Sustainability Office just released the discussion draft of Room to Grow, the first Community Forest Management Plan for the county.

April 21 - Los Angeles County Chief Sustainability Office

Aerial view of downtown Seattle, Washington at dusk.

Seattle Downtown Plan Expands Permitted Uses

The Downtown Activation Plan shifts from Euclidean to form-based zoning to encourage more commercial development.

April 21 - Governing

Large water pipe with brown water pouring out into dirt ditch.

Southern Water Infrastructure at Risk From Climate Impacts

A water main breaks somewhere in the United States every two minutes, according to an estimate from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

April 21 - The Conversation

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Call for Speakers

Mpact Transit + Community

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.