New research to boost quality of life via greener, smarter, more-connected cities

On October 12, 2017, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that it had awarded a $2.5 million grant to a multi-disciplinary team of researchers led by the University of Minnesota for a new project to advance access, wellbeing, health, and sustainability in cities. The project will focus on multiple “smart” infrastructure sectors—water, energy, food, shelter, transportation, waste management—that converge in cities engaged in infrastructure planning.

The grant is part of the NSF’s Smart and Connected Communities initiative, which is investing $19.5 million nationwide to develop interdisciplinary and community-engaged research to revolutionize the nation’s cities and communities with more responsive and adaptive infrastructures, technologies and services.

The project’s educational activities will also connect graduate students from the fields of engineering, urban planning, policy, and sustainability with K-12 teachers and students, with particular attention to under-served populations. Research insights will be broadly disseminated to U.S. cities through partnerships with ICLEI-USA, the National League of Cities, and the MetroLab Network, a city-university collaborative, and through the National Science Foundation’s Sustainable Healthy Cities Network.

The research effort will be co-directed by lead investigator Professor Shashi Shekhar, a computer science and engineering professor in the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering, and co-investigator Professor Anu Ramaswami, a professor in the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Shekhar conducts research leading to a smart, urban infrastructure systems framework that optimizes the spatial deployment of new infrastructure in cities and communities.

The project spans four academic institutions and includes co-investigators Florida State University Professor Rick Feiock, University of Washington Professor Julian Marshall, and Purdue University Professor Venkatesh Merwade.

With transformative new infrastructures coming on the horizon—such as autonomous vehicles, smart and distributed energy systems, novel green infrastructure, and urban farms—the physical fabric of our future cities will be very different from what exists today. The research team will provide new insight on how the future spatial deployment of these new infrastructures in cities will shape access, wellbeing, health, and environmental sustainability in different neighborhoods in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., as well as Tallahassee, Fla.

Infrastructure is one of the pillars of our economy—and sustainable, smart infrastructure systems allow our cities, towns, and communities to thrive as 21st century hubs of innovation and prosperity,” Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said. He was joined by other members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation, including Senator Amy Klobuchar and Representatives Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum, in adding their political support behind the goals of the initiative.

The research team will also engage K-12 students, university researchers, and citizen scientists to develop the first comprehensive public database on infrastructure, environment, health, and wellbeing at the neighborhood level in cities. They will use innovative techniques such as crowdsourcing campaigns using low-cost sensors to characterize air pollution and flooding risks, K-12 engagement in mapping well-being and infrastructure satisfaction at the neighborhood level, and the development of related cyber-infrastructure.

The rich database then will be analyzed to identify novel, interesting, and useful spatial patterns and to develop urban models. Researchers will work with city partners to help better plan future cities considering emerging smart grid, smart mobility, and smart food system transitions.

Minnesota leads the nation in STEAM education that integrates the creativity of the arts with science, technology, engineering and math to address our critical infrastructure needs,” Rep. McCollum said. “This grant reflects the excellence of the University of Minnesota in educating the next generation to meet these challenges.

Additional collaborators at the University of Minnesota include professor Julie Brown of the College of Education and Human Development, Diana Dalbotten of the College of Science and Engineering’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, Len Kne of U-Spatial, along with professor Jason Cao and senior fellows Frank Douma and Robert Johns of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

NSF has long been a leader in supporting fundamental research to equip U.S. cities and communities with more responsive and adaptive technologies and services. Successfully achieving the vision of improving urban quality of life requires advanced understanding of the physical, social and technical aspects of our local cities and communities.

The Smart & Connected Communities program uniquely brings together researchers across a wide range of academic disciplines to closely collaborate with diverse stakeholders in local cities and communities,” said Jim Kurose, NSF assistant director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE). “The collaborative research undertaken by these groups will address challenges faced by our cities and communities, helping to transform communities and improve people’s lives.

This year’s awards address a range of applications, including public safety, water systems, community health and wellness, energy, transportation, infrastructure, manufacturing, food systems and rural and urban planning.

Another resilience-related NSF grant winner was a research project at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor called Overcoming Social and Technical Barriers for the Broad Adoption of Smart Stormwater Systems, Project lead Branko Kerkez will partner with engineers, social scientists, computer scientists and environmental experts in collaboration with decision-makers and local residents across four U.S. communities, prototyping the development and use of smart stormwater systems.

These systems will be able to anticipate changes in weather and the urban landscape, and adapt their operation to drastically improve community resilience to floods and changing water quality.

Featured photo of Minneapolis via Adobe Stock.

See University of Minnesota website.

See National Science Foundation website.

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