UW News

November 1, 2021

UW receives $2M from National Science Foundation to design an ‘adaptable society’

team photo

A team of researchers led by the University of Washington to further research into how urban societal systems can be organized to be both efficient and resilient.Brooke Fisher/University of Washington

A team led by the University of Washington has received a nearly $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to further research into how urban societal systems can be organized to be both efficient and resilient.

The Leading Engineering for America’s Prosperity, Health and Infrastructure (LEAP-HI) project, based in the UW College of Engineering, supports fundamental research to generate the knowledge, mechanisms and tools needed to design an adaptable society. That is one, researchers say, that can switch between different operating strategies depending on the situation. Ideally, people in these societies are informed about and can adapt to system changes without undue hardship.

The grant provides funding over four years to researchers at the UW, Arizona State University, the University of Notre Dame and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

“This project aims to develop systematic ways to reconfigure urban spaces for a variety of uses. It designs mechanisms that provide business owners, and supporting infrastructure such as transit operators, with a set of options and decision support tools capable of accounting for future uncertainties. We explicitly model how information flows through a system so that people can adapt well to external disruptions,” said Cynthia Chen, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering and the lead LEAP-HI researcher.

This research will advance knowledge at the intersection of different disciplinary areas including urban planning, controls and optimization, human behaviors and transportation systems analysis, she said.

Equally important, the project integrates people, businesses and transit into a network, thus enabling a better understanding of how society can adapt to different disruptions.

The project involves two case studies that address the vibrancy of small- to mid-scale food systems in Seattle and Phoenix. These studies will focus on challenges encountered by marginalized communities that include disproportionately large shares of frontline workers in food establishments and public transit users.

“Maximizing efficiency has been the driving force for economic growth and industrial expansion in modern societies,” said Ram Pendyala, one of the lead researchers and a professor at ASU. “It is also a defining attribute of the smart and sustainable cities movement.”

However, maximizing efficiency often results in systems that are unable to adapt to external disruptions, as demonstrated in the wake of many disasters, including COVID-19, Chen said. While there have been calls for increasing redundancy, adding redundancies in systems design increases costs and resource demands.

“What is needed is an adaptable societal organization that can operate in a variety of configurations in response to a wide range of disruptions, thereby displaying both efficiency and resilience,” said Vijay Gupta, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Notre Dame and a LEAP-HI researcher.

And, added Assistant Professor Katherine Idziorek at UNC Charlotte, “our urban spaces and the regulations that are attached to them represent both constraints and opportunities in either prohibiting or enabling those diverse functionalities.”

Additional researchers on the LEAP-HI team includes Dan Abramson and Branden Born, both UW associate professors of urban design and planning; and Chaoyue Zhao, UW assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering.

For more information, contact Chen at qzchen@uw.edu.