New Illinois center to develop smarter infrastructures, smarter publics

12/06/2011

From smart utilities like the smart grid and intelligent transportation systems to social networks on sites like Facebook and YouTube, the infrastructures of tomorrow will heavily utilize information technology. While these “smart” infrastructures promise many benefits, they often require new kinds of interaction between people and the machines meant to serve them. Yet the social, cultural, economic and political side of these relationships often receives little attention.

Servicing a wireless broadband distribution tower on the Santa Ysabel Indian Reservation. Photo Credit: Hope Hall
Servicing a wireless broadband distribution tower on the Santa Ysabel Indian Reservation. Photo Credit: Hope Hall

The new Center for People and Infrastructures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign seeks to address these issues by better understanding social norms, market structures, public policies and human capabilities that shape and are affected by the development of smart infrastructures. The center, part of the Coordinated Science Laboratory, brings together experts in engineering, design, the social sciences, and computer science.

“The U.S. is in an infrastructure crisis driven by chronic underinvestment,” said Co-Director Christian Sandvig, an associate professor of media. “Now we hope to modernize these foundational systems that affect everyone, but to succeed we can’t think about technology alone.”

For example, broadband Internet is absent, difficult to obtain and/or expensive in much of the U.S., not because the technology doesn’t exist, but because of economic and public policy factors that affect the development of Internet infrastructure. In addition, smart meters for the power grid have been controversial among consumers who are skeptical that utilities are acting in their best interest.

The Center will initially focus on research about broadband telecommunications and energy. Researchers will work with fiber networks like UC2B (Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband), which will deliver high-quality broadband connections to several thousand households in Champaign and Urbana, to understand the consequences of fiber infrastructure for education, the economy, health and community participation. In addition, the Center will work to help identify the next generation of broadband Internet applications enabled by fiber infrastructure.

Finally, the Center is working to understand and clarify the interactions between users and their infrastructures by focusing on advanced forms of visualization and the representation of complexity. To teach tomorrow’s students, citizens, and policymakers about these elaborate networks, researchers will develop new educational techniques like interactive mapping and educational games.

The center’s leadership hails from across the campus; the Co-Directors will be Sandvig (Media), Kevin Hamilton (Art & Design), Sally Jackson (Communication), Karrie Karahalios (Computer Science) and Cedric Langbort (Aerospace Engineering). In addition, center research involves student and faculty collaborators from New Media, Human and Community Development, Computer Science, Communications, Library and Information Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering and Sociology, among other areas.

“Infrastructures are about computers, wires and pipes but they are also about human relationships, economics and justice,” said Co-Director Karrie Karahalios, associate professor of computer science. “We want to see infrastructures that not only work, but that help humans to flourish.”