futuristic city skyline

Feature: Smart Cities - Closing the Loop

The rapid evolution of sensor technology and data analytics has opened a new era in civil and environmental engineering and paved the way for a new undergraduate concentration.

By Chris Dawson

Smart Cities Concentration

Engineering, under the leadership of Director Linda Nozick, has added a concentration in Smart Cities to its list of options for undergraduate students. The addition reflects the reality that civil engineers are the people who design much of the infrastructure cities rely on to function smoothly. To build the smart cities of the future students will need to learn more than civil engineering skills; they will also need to have knowledge of the environment, climate change, technology, sensors, human decision-making, data science and artificial intelligence.

“Civil engineering is the engineering that makes civilization possible.” This statement, from Professor Chris Earls, may sound a bit grandiose when you first read it, but if you take a few moments to think about it, Earls is exactly right. Once a human settlement expands much beyond the size of a small town, infrastructure becomes essential. Transportation, energy, communications, water and sewage systems are all requirements of modern life, especially in cities.

At present, more than 55% of the world’s eight billion people live in cities and this number is expected to grow to 68% by 2050. If the growing cities of 2050 continue to rely on 20th century systems and infrastructure, they are likely to suffer from debilitating pollution, traffic, power, water and inequality problems. By offering a Smart Cities concentration, the School is living up to its commitment to prepare students to play a key role in creating cities that serve the people who live in them.

Sensing a change

Nozick and the faculty of CEE understand that the recent explosion in the availability, affordability and capability of sensor technologies is changing the field of civil engineering at a fundamental level. Sensors can gather real-time data on a wide variety of infrastructure-related issues, including traffic volume and flow, weather conditions, energy usage, pollution concentrations and water consumption. This data has the power to then inform design, implementation and policy if engineers and decision-makers know what to do with it. Over and over in conversation after conversation with CEE faculty this term “closing the loop” comes up.

“At Cornell, we are looking at closing the loop on this data,” said Professor John Albertson. “Not just making data available, but also using it to optimally control infrastructure systems for a higher level of performance.”

In one form or another, classes taught by Albertson, Earls, Nozick, Patrick Reed, Samitha Samaranayake and Oliver Gao all teach students how to use data to better understand how infrastructure systems work—and don’t work—in the real world and then how to apply what they have learned from the data to improve the systems.

There is a growing awareness in the field of civil engineering that the training undergraduates receive in their degree programs needs to better match what civil engineers are actually designing and building. “We are teaching the fundamentals of the civil engineering domain,” said Assistant Professor Samitha Samaranayake, “but also giving students exposure to computing tools like machine learning and optimization. We need civil engineers who understand the physical and chemical processes at work, but also human psychology and behavior, modeling, computation, data analysis and optimization. The problems are simply different now and we can’t just engineer our way out of them.”

Smart Cities Curriculum

Students in the undergraduate civil engineering degree program have the opportunity to specialize in one or more areas, including Civil Infrastructure, Smart Cities, Fluid Mechanics/Hydrology/Water Resources Infrastructure and Transportation, or to plan a more general civil engineering curriculum. The 2021-22 academic year was the first year that the Smart Cities option was  available and it started strong with six courses on the schedule.

In the fall of 2021, CEE 4800 Engineering Smart Cities, CEE 4930 Data Analytics and CEE 5735 Mathematical Modeling of Natural and Engineered Systems were all offered. CEE 4665 Modeling and Optimization for Smart Infrastructure Systems, CEE 4795 Sensors for the Built and Natural Environments and CEE 5745 Inverse Problems: Theory and Applications were on the course list for the spring 2022 semester. It is likely more classes will be added in the near future.

Classes included in the CEE Smart Cities concentration reflect the 21st century knowledge and skills required to take full advantage of the smart buildings, smart energy grids, smart water systems, and smart transportation systems that will grow to define the future.

Even before the fall 2021 semester began, Nozick and the faculty received some positive feedback about the new concentration: Albertson’s Engineering Smart Cities class filled quickly. “I had students from the Ithaca campus and students from Cornell Tech in the class,” said Albertson. “My goal in having students from both campuses is to build project teams that have classic disciplinary engineers from Ithaca together with Cornell Tech students that are focused on things like cybersecurity, privacy and other aspects of Smart Cities.”

Continuing Cornell’s legacy of civil engineering leadership
“CEE at Cornell has been at the forefront of much of the thought process behind redesigning energy markets and integrated water management systems in the past,” said Patrick Reed, the Joseph C. Ford Professor of Engineering, “so there is a legacy here of the school taking a leadership role in some very important areas. The mix of humans, engineered infrastructure and the evolution of systems is in our blood.”

This makes the addition of a Smart Cities concentration unsurprising. In many ways, it is simply a curricular reflection of the research being done by many CEE faculty members. The existence of the concentration more closely aligns faculty research with what the school teaches.

One person whose work falls squarely under the subject heading of Smart Cities is H. Oliver Gao. Gao, who is the Howard Simpson Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering as well as director of the Systems Engineering program at Cornell, focuses on urban infrastructure, transportation, and environment systems analytics/modeling and innovation for healthy living in smart communities.

When Gao talks about the idea of Smart Cities, he always adds another adjective to the formulation. “I am advocating not just for Smart Cities, but for Smart, Healthy Cities,” said Gao. “Civil engineers plan and design our future cities. If we don’t have a vision that prioritizes the health and wellbeing of the people who live in these cities, then who will?”

Reed agrees wholeheartedly. He believes that civil engineering is one mechanism whereby cities can serve their citizens. “By starting this training process here and giving the next generation of civil engineers the tools they’ll need to create the smart, healthy, equitable and just cities of the future, we are simply giving them what they are already craving,” said Reed. “Many of our students want a pathway to a future where they feel safe.” As civil engineers trained in data analytics, modeling and artificial intelligence, in addition to discipline-specific knowledge, they will be well-positioned to close the loop connecting design, data and application to have a real impact on the world.