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Serendipity Grants Target Emerging Societal Issues

Abstract illustration of a world and a laptop

In February, 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.

The event, Smart Cities and Infrastructure, was the first of the University of Minnesota’s Convergence Colloquia, which are designed to bring together U researchers and private, public and nonprofit stakeholders to discuss emerging issues in society. These transdisciplinary collaborations aim to engineer the type of serendipity that can only occur when experts from different fields work together to solve a common problem. The colloquia advance cutting-edge research, develop innovative solutions and build long-term partnerships that improve our world.

Throughout the Smart Cities and Infrastructure event, participants worked to identify priorities in research and opportunities for collaboration that could improve the communities in which we live.

After the event, three research proposals were chosen to receive serendipity grants.

Smart Cities serendipity grant projects

The Mental Health Benefits of Nature Experience: Translating Science to Urban Design

Research increasingly suggests that when cities include elements of nature in an urban setting — such as parks, gardens and other green spaces — their residents experience improved mental wellbeing, including improved mood, emotional control,  memory, attention and ability to resist impulsive behavior. Researchers from the U of M will partner with researchers from Stanford University, University of Vermont and The New School at the intersection of social and natural sciences to advance research into these and other mental health benefits that people can experience from urban nature.

The project will allow the research team to understand where the greatest potential is for change and will guide the design of urban landscapes going forward, helping enhance residents’ wellbeing in cities across the U.S. Partners in the project include the City of Minneapolis, City of St. Paul, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Trust for Public Land, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

Making Smart Cities Sustainable: Focus on Food Flows in Hennepin County, MN

Understanding the supply chains serving a city is crucial to aiding in the development of a smart, sustainable community. U of M researchers will partner with Minnesota’s Hennepin County and the Metropolitan Council to develop a “Smart-Food-Flows” database that tracks and maps the food supply chains flowing in and out of the Minneapolis area. Using freight-related information and other existing data sources, the tool will help researchers identify the volume of food being imported and exported, the transit routes they follow and the sustainability of that supply.

Ultimately, the project will investigate how local food production can be sustainable both economically and environmentally, while also being resilient enough to weather shortages caused by supply or climate.

Minnesota Smart City Infrastructure Stress Transparency Tool

Minnesota has a large amount of aging infrastructure — from roads and bridges to traffic signals and storm water systems — that will require maintenance and replacement over the next few decades. A team of U researchers, partnering with MN2050 and the Office of the State Auditor, will collect data to create a public, statewide database of infrastructure needs represented as a visual map. The format will show the location, value, age and condition of infrastructure in a format that is easy for the public, media and lawmakers to understand, encouraging better-informed decision making about how to meet maintenance needs.

The transparency of the database will lead to better planning, reduced overall costs and fewer interruptions for the residents who benefit from the infrastructure. Partners in the project include the Blandin Foundation, the League of Minnesota Cities and Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Next: Addressing an aging population

The second Convergence Colloquia gathering, on the subject of Minnesota’s aging population and its impacts on communities and the workforce, will be held Tuesday, May 19. Contact Carissa Slotterback, director of research engagement, for more information at or (612) 625-0640.

Kevin Coss

Kevin Coss

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

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