Faculty Focus: Stakeholder-Driven Innovation for Resilient Cities

Dr. Barbara Minsker, Civil and Environmental Engineering Chair, brings the perfect alignment of leadership, sustainability and Big Data expertise to change the landscape of Dallas

Over half of the world’s population currently lives in an urban area, a number predicted to expand to 60 percent by 2030. Urban areas face unprecedented and growing challenges that threaten society’s long-term well-being including poverty, chronic health problems, widespread pollution, resource degradation and increased natural disasters. The solution calls for open information sharing and collaboration across industry, communities, disciplines and organizational boundaries, as well as the tools of information technology.

Dr. Barbara Minsker, a nationally recognized expert in environmental and water resource systems analysis and informatics, joined SMU last fall to address these complex challenges facing cities. Last spring, Dr. Minsker was elected a Fellow in the Environmental and Water Resources Institute (EWRI) of the American Society of Civil Engineers. EWRI is the premier professional organization for the field of environmental and water resources systems analysis.

Dr. Minsker’s research uses information technology and Big Data to improve sustainability and resilience of complex environmental and human systems. Two of her ongoing projects, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), explore how social media data and online stakeholder input can support the design of urban green spaces ‒ like rain gardens ‒ to capture and treat stormwater.

“We are launching new research in Dallas that focuses on mapping and defining the infrastructure deserts in impoverished regions of cities that have either run-down or nonexistent infrastructure such as sewer and water, transportation, parks and internet connectivity,” Dr. Minsker says. “These deficiencies can increase vulnerability to major shocks. We want to use human-centered innovation to decrease that vulnerability and alleviate or avoid those shocks.”

Dallas, a member of the Rockefeller Foundation’s “100 Resilient Cities,” is a good place to start. The group is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are increasing in the 21st century. Judges look for cities with innovative mayors, a recent catalyst for change, a history of building partnerships, and an ability to work with a wide range of stakeholders. Dr. Minsker and her research team are in discussions with the city of Dallas to take a deeper look at the city’s infrastructure and what needs to be modernized.

Dr. Minsker has also been working with a local architect, Kevin Sloan, and researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington to explore an idea called Branch Waters DFW. The group is targeting “resilient watershed urbanism,” turning the vast network of the Trinity River tributaries into assets for Dallas, creating parks, recreational areas and trails along the creeks and streams that would drive development while maintaining or restoring a resilient ecosystem. “Most of the streams aren’t interconnected, and some of these areas are still buried under concrete,” Minsker says. “We want to show the value of resilient watershed urbanism to improving community and ecosystem health and well-being.”

These efforts require data to make informed decisions. Thanks to SMU’s support for computational research, Dr. Minsker could bring and install data analytic software she developed with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. “This software will help prototype data ecosystems in the Dallas region,” Dr. Minsker says. “SMU has a heart—this school is not just about technology and crunching numbers, it’s about people. It is engineering with compassion in service to humanity.”

Dr. Barbara Minsker, Chair, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Bobby B. Lyle Professor of Leadership and Global Entrepreneurship, and Senior Fellow, Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity




SMU Lyle Website: Barbara Minsker


100 Resilient Cities

Branch Waters DFW