Urban Artificial Intelligence (AI): Enabling Just Cities in Africa

Urban Artificial Intelligence (AI): Enabling Just Cities in Africa

The Cairo charter workshop will invite contributions to a framework for social and environmental justice-driven Urban AI.

Technology companies are planning with governments in African cities to construct and advance smart city technologies. In Egypt, the government is already planning for 20 smart cities where digitized infrastructure, services, and planning will be implemented. With the advent of Covid-19, prospects for new digital services and infrastructural transformations have been accelerated, while bringing new opportunities to combine more disruptive innovations in urban planning with advanced technological capacity.

In this context, a team from the Urban AI network in collaboration with the Smart and Future Cities Laboratory for Sustainable Urban Solution (SFCL Lab), an urban planning innovation hub at Cairo’s Faculty of Engineering, Ain Shams University, are working on developing a framework for Urban AI focused on ecological capacity and environmental and social justice. The aim of the framework is to ensure and guide the equitable and ethical distribution of forward resources. This charter can be deployed in urban planning, design, and policy projects across Cairo, the continent, and beyond.

In this workshop, we seek insights and discussions at the intersection of AI and urbanism, to support the development of an African urbanism AI charter via a design research method combining experts and community innovators focused on the following questions: How can AI play a role in enabling smart cities in Africa to be not only technologically equipped but ecologically sustainable, environmentally ethical, and socially just? How might AI applications across scales support, and be accountable for, environmental justice and social equity? What guiding principles can support planners, regulators, and innovators in doing this work? The workshop will co-construct insight and ideation for a broader Urban AI framework for Africa, building on insights and applications from the communities and cultures represented by the workshop participants.


Les entreprises technologiques prévoient avec les gouvernements des villes africaines de construire et de faire progresser les technologies des villes intelligentes. En Égypte, le gouvernement prévoit déjà 20 villes intelligentes où l’infrastructure, les services et la planification numérisés seront mis en œuvre. Avec l’avènement de Covid-19, perspectives pour les nouveaux services numériques et les transformations infrastructurelles ont été accélérées, tout en offrant de nouvelles opportunités de combiner des innovations plus disruptives en matière d’urbanisme avec des capacités technologiques avancées.

Dans ce contexte, une équipe du réseau Urban AI en collaboration avec le Smart and Future Cities Laboratory for Sustainable Urban Solution (SFCL Lab), un pôle d’innovation en urbanisme de la faculté d’ingénierie du Caire, université Ain Shams, travaille à l’élaboration d’un cadre. pour l’IA urbaine axée sur la capacité écologique et la justice environnementale et sociale. Le but du cadre est d’assurer et de guider une répartition équitable et éthique des ressources à terme. Cette charte peut être déployée dans des projets d’urbanisme, de conception et de politique à travers le Caire, le continent et au-delà.

Dans cet atelier, nous recherchons des éclairages et des discussions à l’intersection de l’IA et de l’urbanisme, pour soutenir le développement d’une charte de l’IA de l’urbanisme africain via une méthode de recherche en design associant experts et innovateurs communautaires axés sur les questions suivantes: Comment l’IA peut-elle jouer un rôle dans permettre aux villes intelligentes en Afrique d’être non seulement équipées technologiquement mais écologiquement durables, éthiques sur le plan environnemental et socialement justes? Comment les applications d’IA à toutes les échelles pourraient-elles soutenir et rendre des comptes sur la justice environnementale et l’équité sociale? Quels principes directeurs peuvent aider les planificateurs, les régulateurs et les innovateurs à faire ce travail? L’atelier co-construira des idées et des idées pour un cadre plus large d’IA urbaine pour l’Afrique, en s’appuyant sur les idées et les applications des communautés et des cultures représentées par les participants à l’atelier.


Host: The Cairo Charter Project

Cairo, Egypt

Samah El-Khateeb

Dr. Samah El-Khateeb is an Associate Professor in Urban design & Planning Department, Faculty of Engineering, Ain Shams University.She was the head of the Architecture Department in Effat college of Architecture and Design in Saudi Arabia for four years starting from fall 2014 . She is the PI of the smart and future laboratory for sustainable urban solutions funded by STDF, and the PI of the Cairo charter a framework for social and environmental justice-driven Urban AI in Cairo & beyond funded from Facebook Research & HSCR. Her research work is focusing on future & smart cities design and sustainable neighborhoods guidelines. She was the PI for many research projectS since 2011 between Egypt, Germany like; Ezbet Project.  On the practical level, Samah was the executive director of Prime engineering consultants from 2007 till 2013. Currently, she is a smart city consultant and Environmental consultant for many projects.

Katrien Pype

Katrien Pype is an anthropologist focused on technology & urban life in Kinshasa. Her writings challenge the western-centric discourses about Smart City development. She advocates a “smartness from below” perspective in order to find socially appropriate tech-solutions in Africa. She is currently working on a book project on technology & the city in Kinshasa and leads a team of 3 PhD students and 1 postdoctoral scholar studying the dialectics between technology cultures & urbanity in DR Congo, Kenya and Sudan. She is also working with an interdisciplinary team on “smartening” up the city of Gulu, northern Uganda.

Mennatullah Hendawy

Mennatullah Hendawy is a Research Associate and PhD Candidate at the Chair of Urban Design, TU Berlin. She is also a Visiting Researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space in Erkner, Germany and an affiliated Assistant Lecturer at the Department of Urban Planning and Design in Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt. Mennatullah works on the intersection of urban planning, mediatisation, and justice where she focuses on the way knowledge, power, and agency are manifested in and co-construct cities, justice, and the public sphere.

Stephanie Sherman

Stephanie Sherman is a systems designer and strategist working at the intersection of social and speculative design. She has led Designathons in partnership with MIT City Science and the San Diego Department of Regional Transportation, and has published on the organizing process in ACM Journal, etc. 

Nadeen Ashraf

Nadeen Ashraf graduated from environmental architecture and urbanism 2020 (major urbanism) in the faculty of engineering at Ain shams university. She works as a Teaching Assistant in Ain shams university and a research assistant at the smart and future cities laboratory in urban design. She is a research assistant for the Urban AI Cairo project.

Session Summary

The session “Urban Artificial intelligence (AI): Enabling Just Cities in Africa” hosted by The Cairo Charter Project presented on developing a framework for social and environmental justice-driven AI in development and smart city planning interventions in Cairo and more broadly, in Africa. Nadeen Ashraf of The Cairo Charter Project kicked off this engaging session with Introducing the premise of the Urban AI Project: to explore how AI plays a role in enabling smart cities in Cairo and Africa by ensuring that they are not only technologically equipped but also socially just, ecologically sustainable and environmentally ethical. Central to their presentation was the idea around Social Justice and so a thought-provoking question was raised: ‘How can Artificial Intelligence (AI) be used for social justice in Cities?’. We then proceeded to hear from an array of interesting panelists, among the speakers was Stephanie Sherman. Sherman encouraged looking at AI as an ‘intelligent ecology’ and thinking around how AI can inform: planning, transport, finance, infrastructure, food security, public health along with other sectors in the Urban sphere placing at the core, the public benefit and encouraging public participation in AI. Contributing to this point, Dr Samah El-Khateeb encouraged considering the intersections between AI and the social, environmental justices along with the sensibilities, the acceptance, equity and inclusion factors of AI in cities.

Contributing to the session professor Katrien Pype advocated for a “smartness from below” approach to understanding Technology in urban life in Kinshasa. This perspective calls for socially appropriate tech-solutions and interventions in African cities. Pivotal to Pype’s discussion is the idea of having ‘Technology Contracts’ placing much emphasis on the role collaboration plays in AI interventions for cities. Pype suggested that with this idea in mind, the roll-out of AI in cities should be considered a process of Practices (experiments, interventions, experiences) and Negotiations (between the “master” (creators) and “users” of technology). Of utmost importance to this view is that the use of AI in cities requires trust from the users of technology as it is the voices of the users that is important in order to know what to invent, and for whom.

The Cairo Charter concluded their session by opening the discussion to participants, raising a number of fascinating questions around the role of AI in Cities, these included: How do you define Justice in this context? How Could Urban AI Achieve Justice in cities? What could the challenges and opportunities be in doing so? What social and environmental justice could perhaps be mended through Urban AI?