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A Better Future Through “Smart Cities” Research

Long exposure photo of traffic lights amid busy city traffic

Across the world, cities are working to accommodate their residents’ growing needs in transportation, energy, housing and more. Their efforts will become even more crucial in the years to come; estimates predict 2.5 billion more people will live in urban areas by 2050, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

At the University of Minnesota researchers are teaming up with city planners, nonprofit leaders and industry professionals to form solutions that tackle these emerging challenges and prepare communities for the future. These partnerships take advantage of the prevalence of data and technology in society to open new doors for smarter decision making that can lead to more livable, sustainable and resilient cities. The U’s efforts to implement advanced smart cities concepts are part of a growing trend among research universities and technology companies across the U.S. that’s already taken root among global cities, especially in Europe and Asia.

This “smart cities” focus channels the U’s capacity for innovative research. Many faculty at the U have expertise in key smart cities topics, such as urban planning, alternative energy sources, improved water quality, food security, transportation infrastructure and the inclusion of nature and green spaces. There are also many centers and institutes within the U that conduct research in and contribute new knowledge to this emerging field. Examples include the Center for Transportation Studies, Institute on the Environment, Social Media and Business Analytics Collaborative, U-Spatial, Accessibility Observatory, Informatics Institute, Sustainable Infrastructure and Cities Initiative, and Wearable Technology Lab. These efforts also engage a wide range of partners outside the University, from community development groups to policymakers to transit authorities.

Below are a few of the projects now underway at the U of M.

Boosting Infrastructure and City Services

This month, the U of M teamed up with the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul as founding partners in a new nationwide effort to tackle some of the major challenges facing the metropolitan area. The MetroLab Network, supported by $1 million from the MacArthur Foundation, includes 20 city-university collaborations that will undertake more than 60 projects over the next year to boost the efficiency and effectiveness of city infrastructure and services and increase the productivity and competitiveness of regional economies.

“The MetroLab Network represents a unique effort to specifically connect universities and cities on projects that focus on public sector priorities,” said Carissa Slotterback, Ph.D., the U’s director of research engagement and professor of urban and regional planning at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “The network has great potential to advance collaboration by bringing together insights from research and practical implementation that can improve livability, helping communities plan for a brighter future.”

This fall, U of M will come together with Minneapolis and St. Paul city experts to explore the current challenges facing the Twin Cities and identify the resources available to meet those challenges. Leaders expect to decide on three initial research projects at that time.

The creation of the MetroLab Network follows the White House’s recent announcement of a Smart Cities Initiative that will invest over $160 million in federal research and leverage technology collaborations to help local communities tackle key challenges, such as reducing traffic congestion, fighting crime, fostering economic growth, managing the effects of climate change, and improving city services.

The U of M’s involvement in MetroLab follows a related effort to build smart cities partnerships that took place in February. As part of the University’s Convergence Colloquia series, experts, practitioners and community leaders from across Minnesota came together to discuss how their collective knowledge and resources could create more intelligent, efficient and livable communities.

Following the event, three research proposals were chosen to receive serendipity grants. One of these projects, for example, connects U of M researchers working with U-Spatial, the State and Local Policy Program and the Informatics Institute with the state auditor’s office and other agencies and organizations to prepare a one-stop inventory of Minnesota’s city-based infrastructure, such as drinking water and sanity sewers. State Auditor Rebecca Otto plans to use the information to create an easy-to-access, interactive map of Minnesota’s municipal infrastructure.

Partnering to Reimagine Infrastructure for Sustainable, Livable Cities

In August, the U of M received a $12 million grant from the National Science Foundation to lead a national network of scientists, industry leaders and policy partners in building better cities. The project, “Integrated Urban Infrastructure Solutions for Environmentally Sustainable, Healthy, and Livable Cities,” includes 25 faculty members from nine universities, as well as more than 40 graduate students conducting research in cross-university, interdisciplinary teams. By transforming our current infrastructure system with new technologies and designs linked with supportive policy and human behavior changes, the project aims to make cities more environmentally sustainable and livable in ways that advance human health and well-being.

“As our urban population grows, the infrastructure needs of cities place a large draw on natural resources like water, land and energy, and also generate significant pollution that affect human health,” said Anu Ramaswami, Ph.D., director of the project and professor of science, technology and environmental policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and at the Department of Bioproducts and Biosytems Engineering. “We aim to rethink urban infrastructure systems that provide essential services — water, energy, transportation, food, sanitation and green spaces — to advance environmental sustainability, health and livability goals. This research, aided by partners in industry and policy, has the potential to make a huge difference.”

The researchers will collaborate with cities across the U.S. and in India to develop case studies of new infrastructure configurations, technologies and policies that will enhance sustainability, health and livability for urban residents today and in the future. Their studies will include research into “distributed” infrastructure — smaller local systems like urban farms, car-sharing programs, district energy systems,  and solar gardens — as a possible alternative to larger and more conventional systems, like massive power grids and long-distance food supply chains.

Resilience in Regional Communities

For communities to thrive in the long term, they need to prepare for the changes — and challenges —the future may bring. The Resilient Communities Project, an initiative supported by the U’s Institute on the Environment and the Center for Urban Regional Affairs, organizes yearlong partnerships between U grad students and regional communities on sustainability-related projects. The projects work to find solutions that fit the unique politics, demographics, economy and other conditions of the community.

“The value of the Resilient Communities Project is twofold,” said Mike Greco, the project’s director. “Our community partners benefit from the wide range of expertise the University brings, which help it make decisions that position them for a better future. Meanwhile, the program gives students an opportunity to gain invaluable professional experience working with real-world communities that face complex challenges.”

The most recent RCP partner, Rosemount, focused on a number of environmentally related projects, such as climate adaption, alternative energy and community gardening. Among the other projects were neighborhood cohesion, student housing and fire department staffing. These concepts help communities think about how they can be resilient in the future as conditions change and the ways that they can shape that future through the decisions they make now. Before Rosemount, the RCP partnered with North St. Paul and Minnetonka. Its next partnership will be with Carver County, which includes participation from the cities of Victoria, Chaska and Watertown, along with the area’s community development agency, the school district and SouthWest Transit.

Kevin Coss

Kevin Coss

Kevin is a writer with the Office of the Vice President for Research.

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