Ready or not, Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) are rapidly moving outside of laboratories and factories to be tested in the real-world contexts of everyday cities around the globe.  There are significant opportunities for technologists and receptive cities to work together to attempt to solve particular society challenges – like infrastructure maintenance, improving social care services, policing, and reducing traffic congestion – particularly in the context of austerity, when council coffers are low.  Developers intend that these technologies, which promise to make life easier, more accurate, and more efficient, work seamlessly with the city and citizens.  But urban environments are complex, less predictable and more congested environments than tightly regulated and controllable laboratories and factories where these innovations are first prototyped.  At the same time, RAS technologies are already significantly influencing our everyday lives by expanding or replacing human capabilities, and changing our relationships with one another.

We urgently need to understand how RAS technologies could shape our urban environments and our everyday lives.  Likewise, RAS developers need to take into account how cities function and we interact in them, existing regulatory frameworks, cultural preferences and peoples’ experiences of use.

Here are four priorities that will be important in shaping the expansion of robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) in our everyday lives.

  1. Create spaces for urban experimentation:Governments have recognised that real-world testing of RAS prototypes is vital to support innovation 
and attract international expertise
 and investment.  Cities compete to act as urban test-beds so they can capture the economic and employment potential of new sectors and markets.  Spaces for urban RAS innovation in UK cities would be encouraged through defined innovation priorities, supportive regulation, incentives and political leadership.  But setting the conditions for experimentation will not be straightforward. The history of urban technological development shows the importance of understanding concerns around for example, labour, ethics, safety, security, privacy and social equity.  Meaningful engagement with citizens will be necessary to anticipate and manage these concerns.
  1. Make links to place:Our cities, towns and everyday lives offer more than a testing site for implementation of RAS technologies, how cities and societies function determines the nature, forms and outcomes of automation and robotics. National sectoral priorities and plans for RAS technologies need therefore to consider the distinctiveness of towns, cities and communities.  In the UK, for example, there is scope to build stronger links between technologists working on RAS and the Future Cities agenda, which aims to help cities identify their challenges and tackle them using new technologies.
  1. Develop different types of urban living lab:Understanding the potential of RAS is not just a matter of gathering more data, fixing technical problems, or establishing the right institutions.  Changes are required in how city services are designed, organised and delivered. Living urban laboratories (urban living labs) in existing infrastructures therefore have a key role to play in understanding the scope of application for RAS technologies, commercial viability, safety and effectiveness.  Different types of urban living labs can support distinctive forms of experimentation and learning.  Examples include; experimental trials that test RAS under ‘real world’ conditions, particular sites that allow for RAS innovation under protected conditions; and platforms that seek to create a systemic capacity to organise and learn from programmes of related experiments.
  1. Look across the whole city: when attempting to take RAS experiments to commercial application and to embed RAS technologies in everyday life, it will be important to connect findings from trials undertaken in different urban domains.  Whilst the current UK focus is on autonomous vehicles and drones, there is a need to consider the relevance of other bundles of urban applications where the UK has competitive potential. These include resilient infrastructure, artificial intelligence and robotics, emergency response, social care and disaster response. This requires a ‘whole city’ urban governance approach.

Technology creates new possibilities. But as RAS technologies rapidly expand into the core functions of cities, and applications and models are transferred across the world, it is crucial that we take note of existing urban processes in their design.  We also urgently need to understand what attempts to use RAS to address city challenges will mean for society, the economy and environment.

This blog was written by Rachel Macrorie, a Research Associate at the Urban Institute and portfolio lead on Urban Automation.