Written by: 
Erin Cristales
Photography by: 
Ranjani Groth

hen cities first began dipping their toes into the largely untested waters of autonomous vehicles, Abdulrahman Habib (’13 M.S., ’19 Ph.D.) was ready for the ride. Despite the Jetson-ian coolness of driverless cars, the technology wasn’t technically Habib’s interest. The UNT at Frisco-based clinical assistant professor in the Interdisciplinary Program of Analytics and Computational Science (IPACS) -- a joint venture among UNT's College of Science, the Toulouse Graduate School, and the New College in Frisco -- was instead intrigued by collecting data on how residents would react to the potential deployment of the futuristic fleet.

Would, for instance, elderly citizens see the vehicles as a viable alternative for transport to a hospital, particularly those who have no caregiver to take them? Or would they refuse to step foot in a car with no driver, even if their lives quite literally depended on it?

“It’s not the technology itself, but the question of how we deal with it and how others perceive it,” says Habib, who while still a Ph.D. student at UNT began suggesting ways for the city of Denton to improve everything from parking to weather monitoring to non-emergency reporting. “What are we going to use it for? Is it going to make us more efficient? Is it going to solve a group of problems, or at least a problem for a certain segment within our community? And if we employ that technology, will we become a better place?”

What’s not in question is that the future is here. Case in point: Waymo’s autonomous vehicles have forced nearly every major carmaker into a race to develop their own driverless strategies. Frisco recently announced it will serve as a test site for Uber’s flying taxis beginning in 2020. And this year, Amazon released a 29-page drone delivery plan and (successfully) tested its Scout delivery robots in Washington and California.

“Smart cities hinge on a mentality of continuous improvement,” Habib says, “and convincing a community to consider how to best use its resources.”
Abdulrahman Habib, clinical assistant professor in the Interdisciplinary Program of Analytics and Computational Science

Transportation and public safety are the top areas within “smart cities” — a somewhat malleable term that has generally come to signify a region’s problem-solving capabilities and flexibility for change, as well as its ability to provide sustainable, intelligent service — in which consumers notice changes and effects of technology utilization and improvements. The hope is that these sorts of technologies — along with a host of others, such as Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) designed to collect citizen feedback — can play a role in the development of smart cities. That’s why a smart city system primarily focuses on the integration of economic, environmental and social components, including participatory democracy with citizen engagement — in other words, are these developments that residents will actually embrace?

“Smart cities hinge on a mentality of continuous improvement,” Habib says, “and convincing a community to consider how to best use its resources.”

Planning better — and smarter

The smart cities concept is of vital importance as urbanization continues to expand. According to the United Nations, as of 2008, 50% of the world’s population lived in cities, and by 2050, that number is expected to balloon to 70%. Currently, cities consume 75% of the world’s resources and energy, and generate 80% of all greenhouse gas emissions. The development of more smart cities can ultimately reduce energy consumption, water consumption, carbon emissions, transportation requirements and city waste.

“You cannot be a smart city without also being sustainable,” says Habib, who notes that smart cities require interdisciplinary collaboration among fields such as computer science, engineering, urban planning, political science, social studies and economics. “The biggest challenge facing cities in the years ahead is efficiency in using natural resources. If you don’t have enough quality water, or can’t supply the necessary energy for your residents, people will leave your city and go elsewhere.”

Habib first became intrigued by the smart cities concept after he moved from Saudi Arabia to Denton in 2011, when he began UNT’s master’s program in engineering and industrial management. As part of campus organizations such as Innovation Greenhouse, the Saudi Student Association, and the Association for Information Science and Technology, he grew increasingly involved with the city of Denton, which led him to propose digital strategies to improve city processes. He and Victor Prybutok, vice provost for graduate education, dean of the Toulouse Graduate School and Regents Professor of decision sciences, presented a plan that detailed the implementation of easy citizen feedback and service evaluation methods and the use of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to improve operations and communications.

One example, Habib says, is parking. With sensors, city planners can tell how many cars are parked in a street, and with citizen feedback, they can figure out why that location was selected. Such information could lead to pilot programs such as mobile parking apps that utilize the city’s surveillance cameras.

“A smart city needs to cater to our residents in an efficient way,” says Habib, whose dissertation, which he successfully defended this summer, focused on open government data and what citizens require from a smart city to design and pilot future initiatives for the city of Denton. “That includes energy, water, transportation, education, health care, social programs, public safety, government administration — all of it.”

A mission — and a vision — for moving forward

Habib — with fellow UNT College of Information student Miyoung Chong (’14 M.A.), former G. Brint Ryan College of Business professor Nicholas Evangelopoulos and Han Woo Park, a professor at Yeungnam University in South Korea — published an article in Government Information Quarterly in 2018 that used Denton as a case study for the dynamic capabilities of a smart city. The study sought to close the information loop and link problems to solutions by unifying all city services and resources under one framework. A second article, titled “What Factors Affect Residents’ Adoption of Smart City Services,” is set to publish soon in the Journal of Behavior & Information Technology.

In the Government Information Quarterly article, the researchers identified some of Denton’s key problems as parking, homelessness and poverty, and streets and public transportation, with the solutions falling into two main categories: building smart infrastructure and applying technology, such as sensors that understand utilization and automate responsive capabilities.

Through collaborations with former City Councilman Kevin Roden (’98) and Denton’s TechMill — a nonprofit working to grow the local technology and startup community — the city also was inspired to apply for a Bloomberg Foundation grant that allowed Denton to create an open data portal on its website. The portal allows anyone to download, read and analyze the city’s data sets, which provides a crucial understanding of problems and a roadmap to potential solutions.

“We bring these kinds of projects to our students as well. That way, they can do class projects that are beneficial to the community,” says Habib, who notes that one endeavor, presented during Denton’s annual Open Data Day, involved streamlining and formatting data for the Denton County Homeless Coalition. The students helped the coalition better combine user surveys, which resulted in more efficient and targeted outreach to homeless citizens. The event has since grown to include the cities of Lewisville, Addison and Dallas, and the North Central Texas Council of Government, and Habib says the hope is to include cities such as Fort Worth, Irving and Arlington next year. “We can help organizations better understand how to open government data portals, do data modeling and write some code —and improve lives in the process.”

These incremental improvements are pivotal to building smart cities, Habib says, a process that plays out more like a marathon than a sprint. As he readies the next generation of changemakers for the obstacles that lie ahead, he encourages them to remember that change is inevitable, responsiveness is non-negotiable and “smart city” doesn’t just refer to a region — students can apply the general concept of smart cities to improve the lives of students in the university environment as well.

“The process of becoming a smart city will keep evolving,” says Habib, who notes UNT is leading an effort, in collaboration with other universities and private partners, to promote multiple smart cities projects in the DFW area through public-private partnerships with cities and government agencies. “If you work on it this year, the next five years, the next 10 years, the technology and the challenges will keep changing. But the important question to keep in mind is: How are we going to deal with these challenges as a community?”

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