About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Civic AI: responding to the climate crisis

To address the climate crisis, we need to compliment radical policies with an increased capacity for communities to organise and adapt to a new reality. Doing this requires better tools and methods for mobilising large groups of people to take action, reducing associated costs, and advancing the value of collaboration. In this piece, researchers from Lucid Minds and Dark Matter Labs describe 3 future use cases that bring together groups of people and AI to address environmental issues at a community level.

Over the last three months Dark Matter Labs and Lucidminds, with support from Nesta, have been developing three use cases for near future ideas where AI can help equip communities with the tools to collectively respond to the climate crisis and achieve the 2050 target of a carbon-neutral economy. This builds and expands on previous work done by Nesta such as The Future of Minds and Machines: How artificial intelligence can enhance collective intelligence, as well as current projects at Dark Matter Labs, including Trees as Infrastructure and Smart Commons.

The AI opportunity

Organising large scale community responses can be a messy and complicated task, but AI can help cut through this complexity to coordinate action. We have been developing an Augmented Collective Intelligence framework which provides a design tool for applying human and machine intelligence collectively, to respond to community based challenges.

The framework represents augmented collective intelligence as emerging from the interaction of people, technology and objects in the physical world and digital environment. Humans and civic assets (for example a smart solar panel) make up the physical context. Digital traces of humans and machines, combined with simulations and software, make up the digital environment. The framework allows the user to model the interactions between these various components, as well as data and information flows. It explores how communities might harness the collective knowledge and behaviour to manage complex systems, the technical aspects of which will be explored in more detail in a subsequent post.

technical framework for integration of ai and collective intelligence

Figure 1: Augmented Collective Intelligence Framework

Nesta’s previous work highlighted at least 8 ways that AI can add value to CI. Applying the adapted ACI framework (see Figure 1) we have identified three key areas of opportunity that relate most directly to challenges faced by projects working on climate crisis responses:

  1. Fostering collective understanding, using machine learning and citizen science techniques to allow for mass data collection and analysis - for example the Solar PV Nowcasting project uses satellite imagery and short-term weather forecasting to accurately predict electricity production from solar panels to reduce the need for backup supply from fossil fuels.
  2. Recommendation and feedback systems to encourage and sustain collective climate actions through analysing complex issues and recommending optimised actions - for example CityMatrix helps simulate the impact of urban planning decisions to enable collaborative real-time decision making.
  3. Modelling and visualising multidimensional impacts to provide evidence for outcomes-linked climate response investment - for example Regen Network is developing a platform for automating the contracting of ecosystem regeneration.

Where could AI and CI make a difference

Informed by climate response strategies in Project Drawdown and the Exponential Roadmap, we identified eight possible use cases, related to these three areas. The ideas ranged from community composting networks monitored by distributed sensors and AI assisted modelling to help plan and initiate community-scale retrofit of buildings to developing generative design tools for collaborative urban planning of zero-carbon communities.

8 use cases for addressing the climate crisis with AI and collective intelligence

Figure 2: Longlist of eight use cases

Developing potential use cases

There are exciting opportunities for innovation in all of these areas. However, when weighing up their potential impact with plausibility in a community setting over the next three to five years, we believe the most immediate opportunity is in three areas:

  1. accounting for the benefits of urban trees;
  2. collective climate action; and
  3. community energy.

Use case 1 - Accounting for the benefits of urban trees

Model of interactions between physical world and digital environment for mapping trees

Figure 3: Accounting for the benefits of urban trees - AI & CI opportunities

Cities are struggling to match the scale of tree planting needed to meet their net-zero targets, partly because we struggle to measure the vast benefits trees provide us, so we see them as a cost rather than as an investment. What if we use machine learning to partly automate the process of mapping trees and measuring their benefits to justify upfront investment? What if AI agents prompted citizens to verify certain datasets or suggested that nearby trees need watering and fruit can be picked?

Use case 2 - Collective climate action

Model of interactions between physical world and digital environment for collective decision making

Figure 4: Collective climate action - AI & CI opportunities

Responding to the climate crisis will require radical changes to how we live, but sustained change requires actions which are locally appropriate and guided by an understanding of the benefits of taking action (and consequences of not taking action). How might AI help build shared understanding from diverse perspectives; use feedback to reinforce collective actions; and run simulations to identify the gap between the potential impact of local actions and what is required to meet national climate targets?

Use case 3 - Community energy

Model of interactions between physical world and digital environment for community energy

Figure 5: Community energy - AI & CI opportunities

Community energy plays a vital role in decarbonising the national grid and boosting local economies. Yet since government support ended in 2019, the sector has struggled, relying heavily on volunteers to set up, administer and operate the projects. Could AI be used to help automate site identification; enable smart ownership contracts; provide remote fault diagnostics and simulate potential lifetime revenue and social impact, in order to reduce the risk of upfront investment and subsequent operating costs?

Next steps

Behind the ideas described in this piece sits a more in depth analysis and description of the technical framework which we will publish over the next few weeks. We recognise that both artificial and collective intelligence can be complex terms to engage with, which poses a challenge to making the research accessible and useful to the organisations and communities already working on climate crisis responses. To overcome this hurdle, we will be taking the next month to develop the three use cases while engaging with civil society organisations (CSOs) to identify how AI and CI can best help them tackle some of their challenges. We will update the ACI framework as we go, to ensure it provides a useful toolkit.

If you’re interested in engaging with the ideas or the technical Augmented Collective Intelligence framework, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Contact us at [email protected] with the subject line Civic AI.

Thanks to all the valuable insights we have heard so far, from a number of organisations, including: Brixton Energy, Calthorpe Community Garden, Cambridge Canopy Project, Participatory City, Possible and Scottish Natural Heritage.


Bulent Ozel

Bulent Ozel is Co-founder and CEO at Lucidminds

Fang-Jui Chang

Fang-Jui Chang is Strategic Designer at Dark Matter Labs

Oliver Burgess

Oliver Burgess is Strategic Designer at Dark Matter Labs

Sander van der Hoog

Sander van der Hoog is Head of Simulation at Lucidminds

Oguzhan Yayla

Oguzhan Yayla is Co-founder and CTO at Lucidminds