Smart Solutions for Smart Cities

Written by
Julie Halsey
Dec. 22, 2016

On December 1, over 230 alumni, students, faculty and friends came out to TigerTalks: “Smart Solutions for Smart Cities,” aptly held in Midtown at the Princeton Club of New York. The second TigerTalks of the academic year featured a diverse group of panelists, all of whom shared their expertise on the problems cities face and, more importantly, on the smart solutions they are developing through extensive research.

Tom Wright ‘91, President, Regional Plan Association and Visiting Lecturer at Woodrow Wilson School, served as the discussion’s moderator, and kicked off the evening with some statistics about job growth in New York City. “From 1975 to 2005, almost all new jobs were created outside of New York City —most of them in New Jersey.” In the last decade, however, the tide has turned dramatically. “Nine out of every ten jobs in the region are created in New York City,” Wright noted. This acceleration of urbanization is not exclusive to New York City; rather, it is a global and national trend. “In many ways, the concentration of humanity in cities is a good thing,” Wright said. “Cities have a lower carbon footprint and are hotbeds for synergy and creativity, all things we value.” However, he also pointed out that population density also poses unique challenges that many cities, including New York, are ill-equipped to face.

One of these challenges, as Hurricane Sandy brought to the forefront in 2012, are natural disasters. Associate Professor Sigrid Adriaenssens, Civil and Environmental Engineering, spoke about the devastating effects of the hurricane, which caused $65 billion in damages and 150 deaths. “It was shocking to see how quickly some of the coastal communities on the Jersey Shore began rebuilding for tourist season,” Adriaenssens said. “Some of the wealthier communities built costly seawalls, which mitigate storm damage, but come with a host of other problems.” These drawbacks include: diminished real estate value, restricted beach access, inhibited animal migration and plant depletion. The real drawback, as Adriaenssens pointed out, is that most of the time, the wall does not need to be there.

Adriaenssens presented her smart solution to this problem, which is a long, inflatable storm surge barrier. Attached underneath the boardwalk, the barrier could be inflated in two to three hours with air pressure. “This technology isn’t new; it’s used for dams at a much smaller scale,” Adriaenssens remarked. “My group is investigating whether we can use this at a larger scale, perhaps to outfit the Rockaway Peninsula.”

Another natural disaster that cities need to consider? Fire following earthquakes. “Fire causes more damage than ground shaking itself,” said Associate Professor Maria Garlock, Civil and Environmental Engineering. “We know how to design buildings to resist earthquakes, but we don’t think about cascading events that follow.” These cascading events are cyclical: fire risk is much higher during earthquakes, because the water networks fail; water networks fail because they are dependent on the electric network. As Garlock pointed out, “Power and water are the most interrelated dependencies in terms of the consequences of an earthquake or a hurricane.” Using technology, Garlock’s team has developed a new model for ignition, or predicting where earthquakes will occur. They are also working to find ways to separate the water and electric networks to curb the damage fire following earthquakes causes.

Global warming also poses a major challenge for cities, particularly because cities are where the phenomenon’s effects are felt most intensely. As Associate Professor Elie Bou-Zeid, Civil and Environmental Engineering, noted, “Cities are hotter than their surroundings, which means global warming will increase the intensity and duration of heatwaves.” And heatwaves are nothing to dismiss. “Heatwaves are the biggest killers in terms of fatalities; they exceed the death tolls of both earthquakes and tsunamis,” Bou-Zeid said. New York City is planning for extreme heat and extreme flooding, and trying to understand how to make the city more resilient. Bou-Zeid and his team are working to gather data and determine what is changing at a fundamental level when we urbanize, and how cities might combat these adverse atmospheric effects through smart technologies.

Professor Mario Gandelsonas, School of Architecture, offered a convenient definition of Smart Cities: “The efficient management of knowledge and a better quality of life through living more intelligently.” When one thinks of a Smart City, Des Moines, Iowa, is perhaps not the first place that comes to mind. Gandelsonas wowed the audience with the advancements this Midwestern metropolis has made throughout the last two decades. “We managed to convince the city to demolish eight blocks of decaying infrastructure to make room for new buildings, a park, and an open-air sculpture museum,” Gandelsonas said. “We also developed East Village, a vibrant residential community that is home to over 12,000 people, with an additional 15,000 expected to move back within the next decade.”

Gandelsonas’s latest project is bringing together both health and education; he is working to create a string of large greenhouses that will grow fresh produce 365 days a year, enabling Des Moines’s Farmers Market, the biggest in the world, to operate year round, unconstrained by weather.

Jay Dominick, Princeton University Vice President and CIO, made a convincing case for Princeton as a Smart City, albeit on a micro scale. “Princeton models smart communities of the future,” Dominick said. “The university is adaptive, and uses devices that can sense the environment and make changes quickly without the intervention of a person.” Elie Bou-Zeid offered an example of this real-time technology on campus. “We have sensors at EQuad that measure things like precipitation, solar radiation, air temperature, wind speed, and soil to help collect data on the relationship between urban areas and the atmosphere.” As all the panelists cautioned, however, an abundance of data is useless unless we can make connections and glean insights.

One thing is certain: people will continue flocking to cities at a rapid pace. As Bou-Zeid noted, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. Urbanization poses many challenges, but also affords exciting opportunities to gather and interpret data and design new infrastructure. And as this panel discussion illustrated, Princeton faculty, alumni and students will continue working on solutions to make cities smarter, safer and more sustainable for all who inhabit them in the future.

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