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A Stanford Approach to Smart City and Sustainable Urban System Research

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As discussed in the initial research proposal to establish SCIGC, smart city implementation requires much more than simply embedding information technology hardware into existing urban infrastructure systems, or the application of artificial intelligence to analyze municipal data streams.  Smart city implementation requires a “set of physical infrastructures, digital IT technologies, regulations and policies, financing mechanisms, community engagements, businesses and business models, partnerships, and other institutions that must be created, applied, and sustained in concert with each other to provide a high quality of urban life.”  This set of technologies, policies, and organizations was termed collectively by SCIGC researchers as urban “metastructure.”  

For better understanding, this metastructure can be parsed into three critical elements of smart cities.  The foundational element is (I) a dense sensing and data collection network.  This sensing and data collection network comprises the “set of physical infrastructures” within the urban metastructure.  Such sensing networks can be constructed specifically for smart city purposes (i.e., CCTV cameras, roadway traffic sensors) or leverage the increasing numbers and capabilities of personal smartphones.   Built upon this sensing network is (II) a computational layer that translates the ever-growing stream of smart city data into information that can be used by smart city residents, businesses, and visitors.  This computational layer, which leverages advanced computational algorithms (i.e., machine learning, reinforcement learning, artificial intelligence) to efficiently and rapidly process incoming data streams can provide the public with information via smartphone applications or direct alert updates.  These two basic layers of smart city metastructure, (I) sensing and (II) computation, are commonly associated with smart city research and represent a part of SCIGC smart city research.

The final component of smart city metastructure is (III) an engagement mechanism.  Within the smart city literature, this is a rarely studied, yet critically important, component of smart cities.  While foundational sensing networks and computational layers enable smart city metastructure, effective engagement mechanisms are necessary to substantially increase the quality of life in smart cities.  Without creating long-lasting value for everyone living, working, learning, and playing in a city, and substantially increasing their quality of life, smart city technologies and apps will continue to be novelties, used by early adopters of technology, rather than effective tools of city-wide sustainable development and management.  These engagement mechanisms comprise the “regulations and policies, financing mechanisms, community engagements, businesses and business models, partnerships, and other institutions” of urban metastructure.

The research vision of SCIGC to ultimately establish a smart city model by individually or collectively researching and studying the fundamental components that enable a smart city is built upon four, newly renamed, research pillars.  These four pillars necessarily bridge the three critical elements of smart city metastructure (sensing, computation, and engagement) in order to demonstrate and validate SCIGC research at scale.  The four SCIGC research pillars are;

  1. Vehicle & Infrastructure Systems (VIS)
  2. Human Urban Interaction (HUI)
  3. Design Thinking and Entrepreneurship (DTE)
  4. Sustainability (SUST)

The relationship between these four pillars, and the research being conducted by each SCIGC researcher, is shown in the image below.  As seen, the research work being done by most SCIGC researchers is necessarily interdisciplinary, connecting between two or more SCIGC research pillars.  This is a hallmark of Stanford University research, and thus SCIGC research.

Research Pillars


Beginning in September 2022, the SCIGC research vision of ultimately establish[ing] a smart city model by individually or collectively researching and studying the fundamental components that enable a smart city will take on greater importance at Stanford University with the opening of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability (https://doerr.stanford.edu).  Through the generous endowment of US$1.1 Billion to Stanford University by John and Anne Doerr, this new school will serve as the university’s home for all sustainability-related research.  SCIGC researchers and partners align closely with the Doerr School of Sustainability’s Institute for Sustainable Societies’ Sustainable Cities Initiative, which looks to “develop climate-smart approaches for city growth and management, such as decarbonizing the built environment and protecting biodiversity, to drive more sustainable, equitable models of urban development.”  SCIGC looks to be an active and integral part of this new research initiative at Stanford and to serve as a link between the Doerr School of Sustainability and our Korean partners in academia, industry, and government.