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Researchers coax people to envision greener cities using AI images of familiar streets


Researchers coax people to envision greener cities using AI images of familiar streets

By cleverly combining advertising techniques with artificial intelligence, the team increased support for a sustainable transportation bill—particularly among republicans
March 5, 2024

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When Americans see vivid, realistic images portraying car-free versions of familiar streets they become more enthusiastic about sustainable transportation policy, according to a new study. What’s more, the images are especially effective in shifting the views of Republicans, who typically oppose such policies.

Public transit has become a polarized political issue in the United States, hampering efforts to reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions through public policy. But the country’s infrastructure is very car-centric, which makes it difficult to reduce emissions by getting individuals to drive less.

To break this logjam, researchers turned to advertising techniques—with an assist from artificial intelligence.

“Perhaps one way to lower skepticism about green policies is to help people visualize and imagine the positive outcomes of those policies,” says study team member Rachit Dubey, who studies climate psychology at MIT Sloan Marketing. “That is, perhaps people are not supportive of green policies because they might not be fully aware of the positive outcomes of those policies and if policy-makers can better communicate about those outcomes, then that could help reduce controversy and skepticism.”

To test these ideas, Dubey and his colleagues conducted two online surveys with a total of more than 3,000 people. Participants first read about a hypothetical bill that would increase investment in public transportation, improve and expand sidewalks, and add bus and bike lanes on major roads. Then they were shown an image of an American street as it currently exists alongside how the bill would change the street: either a brief text description, a sketch illustrating the changes, or photorealistic images of the street after implementation of the bill.


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In the first study, the imagined car-free versions of streets were created in the AI image generation program DALL-E, while the second study used a different set of images created in Stable Diffusion. “In our paper, AI serves as a useful tool to help generate realistic visuals at scale and could be a valuable tool for policy-makers going forward,” Dubey says.

People who viewed the AI images of car-free streets expressed greater support for the hypothetical sustainable transportation bill compared to those who read the “after” description or viewed the sketch, the researchers report in the journal Nature Sustainability.

The AI images were especially effective among Republicans in increasing support for the bill and willingness to sign a petition promoting it. Almost one-third of Republicans who saw the AI images were willing to sign the petition, nearly twice the proportion of Republicans in the other two groups. The finding suggests that rather than trying to shift people’s climate beliefs, it might be more effective to simply help people envision the positive outcomes of climate policy in their daily lives.

That notion is supported by results from the second study, which included some additional questions to try to suss out the mechanisms behind the AI images’ effects. In that study, participants who saw the AI images said they were better able to imagine the outcomes of the bill compared to the other two groups. They were also more likely to say the bill would significantly improve their lives.

“One important question our piece raises is why people who were skeptical of sustainable policies weren’t able to imagine positive outcomes of those policies in the first place,” says Dubey. “Is it due to a lack of trust in the policy-makers or is it due to a lack of awareness?” The researchers are now conducting studies to learn more about how the imagination works in the context of climate change. They also aim to work with an environmental NGO to test whether the AI-generated images could increase support for real-world policies, Dubey reports.

Source: Dubey R. et al.AI-generated visuals of car-free US cities help improve support for sustainable policies.” Nature Sustainability 2024.

Image: ©New York City Department of Transportation

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