More livable cities

10.29.14 -

What will the future city look like, and how can it become both smarter and more livable? A new center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign seeks to create such a vision and develop the knowledge and technologies that will enable today's cities to move toward it. The center is supported by NCSA, the College of Engineering, and the Prairie Research Institute.

Over half the world’s population lives in urban areas, a number predicted to grow to 60 percent by 2030. Urban areas face unprecedented and growing challenges that endanger both human wellbeing and the ecosystems that support us, such as: inner-city food deserts, health problems, and poverty; urban sprawl and inefficient transportation leading to chronic pollution; increased flooding, droughts, sea level rise, and severe storms from climate change; and a lack of knowledge and technologies to address these complex problems involving "systems of systems."

Cities are recognizing that the increasing stream of data and information ("Big Data") and modeling can support rapid advances. The objective of the Urban Informatics for Sustainability and Resilience (UrbInSuRe) Center is to partner university researchers with city planners, policy makers, engineers, and others to address city challenges using a transformative technology platform and collaborative process.

The center will initially focus on sustainable and resilient design of urban infrastructure, defined in its broadest sense to include transportation, water, food, and other human systems that support cities. Designing these systems to be sustainable and resilient requires consideration of both their mutual interconnections and their interactions with energy, social, economic, and environmental systems. Novel methods for synthesizing data from the web and community partners, low-cost sensing and robotics, and social computing will be combined with data-driven modeling at multiple spatial and temporal scales to support adaptive, information-based, and smart decision making.

UrbInSuRe is seeking diverse city partners across the world, building from existing collaborations such as the green stormwater infrastructure partnerships mentioned elsewhere in this issue. Grand challenges from the cities will be addressed through a novel framework that combines successful elements of National Science Foundation-funded synthesis centers with technologies, programs, and expertise from NCSA and other partners. A national working group is piloting the framework to address green infrastructure grand challenges; the group is funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, NCSA, and the Renaissance Computing Institute in a partnership with the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

This framework will enable new ideas to emerge and coalesce in synthesis workshops (the inaugural workshop is planned for early 2015) and working groups that bring together multi-disciplinary teams with partners from industry, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and academia. Working groups will meet for intensive retreats and collaborate remotely between retreats, led by faculty and supported by PhD students and staff. Each working group will regularly share knowledge and ideas with the others to ensure cross-fertilization. Four initial working groups, led by Illinois faculty and staff, are under discussion: (1) Data-Driven Urban Informatics and Technologies, co-chaired by Jong Lee (NCSA) and Jana Diesner (Graduate School of Library and Information Science); (2) Risk and Resilience of Coastal Cities, co-chaired by Gary Miller (Prairie Research Institute) and Paolo Gardoni (Civil and Environmental Engineering); (3) Rural and Urban Interfaces, co-chaired by Luis Rodriguez (Agricultural and Biological Engineering) and Anna-Maria Marshall (Sociology); and (4) Healthy Urban Living: Improving Human and Ecosystem Wellbeing in the Urban Environment, co-chaired by Mei-Po Kwan (Geography) and William Sullivan (Landscape Architecture).

UrbinSuRe activities will be supported by an advanced cyberinfrastructure that will build from existing technologies to create a state-of-the-art service-oriented Big Data city and technology platform for urban research. The platform will support a collaborative process for seamlessly linking and sharing data acquisition and analysis, models, and sequences of analytical and modeling steps. These tools will be accessible through user-friendly, yet computationally powerful, web applications for knowledge creation and decision support. This cyberinfrastructure will support adaptive research and decision making to rapidly identify and advance new data and technology needs.

The Big Data platform will be made available to campus and external users for open research, education, and engagement; users will be invited to contribute to advancing its capabilities through an open-source community. Data and information sharing agreements and access security will also be available to ensure that confidentiality is protected when needed.

I would welcome partnerships with other groups and organizations working on related problems and technologies (contact me at

Barbara Minsker
Director, UrbInSuRe Center