Humphrey School News

Smart Cities: Humphrey School Research Moves From Data to Action

May 24, 2016
Sustainability workshop

We all know what a smart phone is and what a smart building might be, but do we know how to build a smart, sustainable, and healthy city?

The United States, India, the United Kingdom, and many other countries have begun looking at how advances in the data sciences—things like cloud computing, real-time weather forecasting, building occupancy sensors, automated water and wastewater treatment systems, driverless vehicles, and synchronized traffic lights—can be used to improve the lives of residents in urban areas.

For example, in September 2015, the Obama Administration announced the “Smart Cities” Initiative, pledging $160 million to enhance collaboration for better collection, use, and analysis of data for enhancing the living conditions in American urban areas. On the other side of the world, the government of India selected 20 “smart” cities to develop infrastructure to support a clean, sustainable environment.

The larger question has become—how can we use those smart technologies not only to improve our cities’ infrastructures, but to also advance human well-being and environmental sustainability?

“We need higher-order thinking for developing smart, sustainable, and healthy cities,” says Humphrey School professor Anu Ramaswami, whose commentary on the subject was published in the special urban issue of the journal Science.  

“We must move beyond data to the systems-level decisions that we as a society must make to transition toward a smart, sustainable, and healthy urban future,” says Ramaswami.

Principles for smart, sustainable cities

In the commentary, Ramaswami and the other authors outline eight basic principles for transforming cities that apply across the world, and resonate with local partners.

The first one is to focus on providing basic infrastructure for all, especially in cities where 30-40 percent of the population lives in slums. 

Ramaswami and co-author Rahul Sharma, a Humphrey School PhD candidate who is researching urban areas in India, cite a few examples already underway: In India, where cities face problems with water scarcity and access in slum areas, ATMs (automatic teller machines) that dispense fresh water are being piloted. Cities in China are exploring “fit-for-purpose” water reuse supply to homes.

It’s not enough for individual cities to develop these smart technologies on their own. Ramaswami notes that most urban areas get the vast majority of their energy, water, building materials, and food from beyond their boundaries, so developing cleaner and more efficient systems for supplying these goods and services is critical.  

 Ramaswami‘s group has pioneered the development of footprinting tools that cities can use to measure their energy and water consumption, and then use that data to better understand their impacts on the environment within and outside their boundaries.

Another guiding principle is to pursue urban health improvements at different scales—from the home, to the neighborhood, to regional pollution, to climate extremes—while recognizing the inequities among residents.  Many U.S. cities are undertaking community-based health planning with a focus on climate events such as extreme heat and cold, and how they might impact vulnerable populations differently.

 The authors also recommend the integration of large infrastructure systems with smaller-scale, local systems such as urban farms, community solar gardens, and district energy systems.

Humphrey School leading the research

The principles and recommendations are the results of insights developed from two large multi-institution grants supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation, which are being led out of the Humphrey School.

1. The Sustainability Research Network (SRN) project, which is funded by a $12 million grant that was awarded to the University of Minnesota last fall to bring together a network of scientists, industry leaders, and policy partners to study how small- and large-scale infrastructure affects sustainability, health, and well-being in cities.

2. The Partnership for International Research and Education (PIRE), a collaboration of the University of Minnesota, Yale, Georgia Tech, and four universities in India and China, to develop an international and interdisciplinary curriculum. The project connects study tours with research and outreach, and allows for deep engagement with nonprofit government organizations and policymakers from the U.S., China, and India.

The PIRE project brought together faculty, students, and policymakers from these three countries in January for a workshop on sustainable cities, co-organized by ICLEI South Asia. The workshop was the culmination of a tour of various cities in India and China to study how those cities were transforming their infrastructure to meet future needs.  The principles described in the publication were discussed in this workshop.

“This paper is a step towards articulating the diversity of solutions and disciplinary approaches required to develop smart, sustainable, and healthy cities,” says Sharma.  

 Ramaswami is the Charles M. Denny, Jr., Chair of Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy (STEP) at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.  The STEP program integrates science with public policy, community action, and multi-sector governance.

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