Visualizing the Future: Artificial Intelligence in Climate Action

Exploring How Generative AI Can Boost Public Participation

June 4, 2024

“Reimagining a walkable and bikeable Panama City using generative AI”

Image created by workshop participant

Can Artificial Intelligence Drive Citizen Engagement to Address Climate Change?

The topic of water, or water scarcity, doesn’t typically make the national news in Panama.  But when water scarcity starts affecting one of Panama’s biggest sources of national pride and economic lifelines – the Panama Canal – people take notice.  So much so that, in May of this year, presidential candidates had to address the topic of water scarcity and the Panama Canal during a live televised national debate.  Candidates were asked, “What’s your plan?”. 

It is an important question, especially given that the Panama Canal represents up to 8% of the country´s GDP.  But the effects of climate change aren’t entirely new to Panama – having suffered several catastrophic events in the past few years.  What is new is the question of how to address it – and delivery on a “plan.” Furthermore, who is involved in that plan and what is the sense of urgency?

It turns out that climate change and citizen participation are deeply intertwined, as effective climate action depends on informed, inclusive policy-making that incorporates community insights and public support.  Understanding this, the UNDP Panama Accelerator Lab wanted to investigate whether AI-powered tools could facilitate a deeper understanding of climate change risks through visualization techniques and stimulate a call to action.

“This makes me worry about our canal (the Panama Canal) and what will happen to it if the drought gets this severe”.

Workshop participant

Experimenting with Artificial Intelligence for Climate Scenario Planning

To explore the possibilities of AI in improving civic engagement, we asked students at the University of Panama to bring pictures of their neighborhoods or familiar areas, which were then uploaded to UrbanistAI - a platform that allows real-time rendering of images.

In the first part of the exercise, we asked participants to think about a dystopian future, where climate change has negatively affected their neighborhood.  The students were able to select specific prompts that are related to disasters that are relatively common in Panama, for example: 'drought', 'flood', and ‘earthquake'.  As students entered the prompts, they witnessed their images, places once familiar to them, transformed before their very eyes.  There were audible gasps in the room as the unrecognizable images started populating their screens.  We asked, “do these places look familiar to you?”  Perplexed, they answered, “Yes… and no.”  “It looks so real”, one student commented.

“The people who live in these towers are far gone to their summer homes, only the poor are left behind”.

Workshop participant

We then asked students to imagine a utopian future in which Panama had successfully adapted to climate change in a positive way. This time, the prompts inputted included phrases such as "nature-based solutions", "renewable energies", and "bioclimatic architecture".  Similarly, students were surprised by the images generating, commenting on the importance of proper waste management to achieve those results, and making interesting connections between resilient infrastructure and civic culture.

In the final part of the workshop, we held an "open imagination" zone where students could use the platform to imagine their ideal version of Panama. They produced images depicting a Panama enriched with natural landscapes, world-class educational facilities and urban designs that prioritize walkability and bike friendly cities, as well as houses designed to withstand flooding.  While they were inspired by the results, they begrudgingly made comments such as “In our dreams.”

“I like the garden that the AI created, but these plants would never grow in Panama´s climate.”

Workshop participant

Results, Reflections and Future Applications

In discussing the hundreds of images produced, participants highlighted the inequalities in how climate change affects different social groups. For example, they observed that in flood scenarios, wealthier people were less affected because they lived higher up or had alternative homes to retreat to. Discussions also highlighted the importance of improving food systems, with suggestions for localizing small scale production near urban centers and developing renewable energy solutions.

The exercise also exposed the limitations of the technology in understanding and applying solutions tailored to local contexts, as illustrated by one participant who noted that the tool had designed a garden with plants that would never grow in Panama's climate. This insight revealed the need for AI to integrate feedback mechanisms to account for diversity. This interaction between AI and students provided valuable feedback on how emerging technologies can effectively engage communities in decisions that affect their lives and help them visually understand complex issues such as climate change. 

By using generative AI in scenario planning and citizen participation, the workshop showed how powerful images can be in raising awareness. Participants interacted with AI through their mobile phones, gaining new insights and contributing unique perspectives. This approach made climate change more tangible and urgent, fostering greater engagement from the audience. A final survey showed strong participant identification with the outcomes and a diversity of views, demonstrating how this methodology can enhance citizen involvement, anticipate climate risks, and support inclusive, effective policy-making.

We will continue to explore with AI, which we believe has the potential to be applied in a variety of human development contexts, from urban planning to addressing complex challenges in citizen participation and decision-making that promote inclusion and democracy in our region.

“Climate adaptation solutions for Panama generated by AI”

Image created by workshop participant
"Artificial intelligence and other digital technologies can promote democracy and human rights by facilitating civic engagement and political participation. They can also prevent information pollution and thus play a crucial role in strengthening social cohesion, depending on the choices we make."
Achim Steiner, Administrator, UNDP