ASU granted $3M to build smart cities education program

Faculty and National Science Foundation collaborate to create innovative graduate program

With 5G speed and self-driving cars around us, our cities are becoming smarter than ever, and with the help of the National Science Foundation, ASU is helping the people who build these cities think smarter as well.

According to Sethuraman Panchanathan, executive vice president of ASU Knowledge Enterprise and chief research and innovation officer at ASU, the University has received a $3 million grant from the NSF for the creation of a National Research Traineeship Program at ASU.

The foundation funds projects that are intended to better the future of society, specifically through education. 

ASU competed against several hundred proposals for the $3 million in funding from the NSF, and was granted the funds on September first this year. This is the first time ASU has won funding for an NRT Program.

“Our strength of idea, our strength of the team, our approach and our past performance, all played a role in us being chosen for this next investment for this five year program," Panchanathan said. 

The program, known as “Citizen Centered Smart Cities and Smart Living,” will be an interdisciplinary graduate level program, will focus on citizen-centric interaction with advancing smart technology and include ASU faculty from different areas of expertise involved to ensure informed, modulated and inspired ideas. 

“ASU is very good at working on these kinds of transdisciplinary problems and solutions," Panchanathan said.

He said that in order to make sure students have all the pieces to solve potential problems, ASU must have all disciplinary perspectives included in the program.  

The goal of the Smart Cities and Smart Living program is to train future thought leaders who are able to help envision, design, develop and execute programs in the context of smart city development.

According to Panchanathan, a smart city is a city that is taking every opportunity to deploy data collecting technology and analyze the data to create change that benefits the city.  

“They may work for academia, they may work for industry, they may have their own startup companies, they may work in public service," Panchanathan said. "(They will be) able to go and work in these different contexts to help shape the future of what smart cities will look like globally.”

All of the students will have opportunities to take multidisciplinary classes, interact with several ASU faculty members and get hands-on experience in all of the real world fields that pertain to smart cities. 

Panchanathan believes that the program will have a huge impact because there are many smart cities being envisioned nationally and globally, as well as many cities that already exist and need to be made smarter. 

Read more: Sustainable, smart stadium coming to ASU in 2018

Troy McDaniel, an assistant research professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering and associate director of the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing, was a vital part of the smart Sun Devil Stadium.

Making Sun Devil Stadium a smart stadium was one of ASU's test beds that proved the importance of smart technology integration, McDaniel said.

As a faculty contributor to the NRT program, McDaniel brings expertise in human-computer interaction, assisted technology and the smart city simulation. 

According to McDaniel, the program has the potential to impact intellectual merit in addition to its broader impacts.

“(The program) will build a training model that will equip students to take on careers in citizen-centered smart cities," he said. 

The education model includes courses on smart cities, communication skills trainings, internships, teaching opportunities and access to smart cities testbeds like Sun Devil Stadium.

McDaniel said that this educational model will inevitably make meaningful impacts in society because of its creation of a new cohort of graduate students. 

“We’re building an ecosystem where we have faculty and industry partners, and community partners and non profits,” McDaniel said. All these entities are working together on research and making impacts, he added.

However, there are concerns surrounding the smart city model.

Kendall Rees, a junior studying civil engineering, said that the inevitability of smart cities is challenging some of the discussions had in her Transportation Engineering class.

“We’re in a weird state right now in our society because we are seeing an increase of automated vehicles on the road,” Rees said. “What makes this an interesting challenge for transportation engineers is that autonomous vehicles remove the human factor. This human factor is taken into account when designing everything.” 

According to Rees, research into smart cities is important because it is so groundbreaking.

“We are looking at a complete transformation in how people travel,” Rees said. "While this idea of a smart city is trendy and at the forefront of discussion now, there has also been a push to install non-signaled intersections."

She said these are questions that researchers will have to answer as this technology becomes more commonplace.

With the wealth of data being collected in smart cities, the program addresses society’s possible concerns in security and safety of personal information. 

"People have concerns ... and rightfully so," Panchanathan said. “How do we walk this trade-off between higher functionality and higher quality, at the same time ensuring that we have the same level of safety and security?” 

He said these are research topics people will be pursuing in this program.

Though the program development is still in the works, many faculty members have begun collaborations to ensure the best possible outcome in the five year span. 

“We’re very excited,” McDaniel said. ”We are still very early on but we’re moving full steam ahead.”


Reach the reporter at mshrikan@asu.edu and follow @MayaShrikant on Twitter. 

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