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Northeastern University Is Changing its Curriculum to Build Smarter Cities

Do you know how smart is your city is? Is it using information and communication technology to fully optimize the efficiency of city operations, manage traffic and connect citizens? Is it harnessing the latest technologies and data to improve security and sustainability? Are quality of life and job creation among the primary factors being considered in its urban planning?

Across the country, the technology boom is extending its electronic reach into practically every aspect of our daily lives.  New apps are constantly being released to correlate data in real time to tell us where traffic is backed up, or when the next bus is arriving. New systems help manage urban flow, detect predictive patterns and enable swifter, more effective responses to natural and man-made disasters.

Who exactly is behind all this evolving technology? Who is developing it, managing it and implementing it in ways that improve our daily lives? That is a question that Dr. Jerome Hajjar, a professor and department chair from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northeastern University, has long been considering.

Preparing students 

Northeastern is making it a priority to prepare students for a new wave of careers. And it’s not just engineering — it’s architecture, public policy and many other fields. That’s where the idea of smart cities comes in.

 “We’ve been evolving our curriculum in a variety of ways,” says Dr. Hajjar. The university has started two new master’s degrees programs with the college of social science and humanities and the school of public policy and urban affairs. One is on infrastructure resilience and another is on energy and environment. Northeastern has also been adding numerous new courses on both the graduate and undergraduate level on climate change, climate adaptation, infrastructure resilience and a variety of other topics.

Because the Boston region has been using a lot of new technologies to improve its own infrastructure, the students at Northeastern are participating in experimental research to gain real-world experience they can apply to their classroom education. By seeing the kinds of problems that exist in areas like transportation, mobility and disaster response, they better understand the innovations and solutions that need to be created.

These are exciting times in civil and environmental engineering, according to Dr. Hajjar. “There is so much that can be done, and needs to be done on those areas,” he says. “I’ve been talking to a number of people around the country about helping a whole profession to evolve.”

In addition to department faculty researching transportation planning related to autonomous vehicles, the professor and his students have also been studying the impact of hurricanes and storm surges on urban coastal regions.

 “We’ve also been developing algorithms for using unmanned aerial vehicles to autonomously circumvent structures and automatically detect and document damage,” Hajjar says. “And this can help with structures that are difficult to inspect, this can address ageing infrastructure, and this can address damage that might occur after a significant event like an earthquake or a hurricane.”

The future

Though Europe and parts of Asia may be ahead of North America in respect to smart cities with smart technologies, our universities and experimental research can help close the gap. Just last year, Northeastern started a Global Resilience Institute, led by a political scientist named Steve Flynn. Through the institute, he has brought together several professionals, and is working with people around the world from engineering, science, social science, and other disciplines.

 Dr. Hajjar adds, “If we’d like to ensure that we’re developing structures and urban regions that are more resilient and can bounce back more quickly from extreme events, there are things that I think can be done to help create a culture shift where people really start to think directly about this on a broader basis. And I would like to see that happen in the future.”

It’s a lot to take in, and there’s a lot still left to discover. But with universities like Northeastern leading the way, creating new paths of opportunity and helping entirely new professions evolve, the students of tomorrow will be prepared to ride this new wave of technology into the future.

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