Research News

Vanderbilt and University of Tennessee-Knoxville win Sustainable Regional Systems Research Network grant from National Science Foundation

Jonathan Gilligan, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, and Janey Camp, research associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, have won a Sustainable Regional Systems Research Network grant from the National Science Foundation.

Jonathan M. Gilligan (Vanderbilt University)
Janey Camp (Vanderbilt University)

With a grant of nearly $150,000, they and researchers from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville will work with involved entities to propose a large-scale research network that ultimately would improve interrelated electric, transportation and communications services in areas with infrastructure served by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The team defines infrastructure as technology that encompasses social, behavioral, political and economic aspects of the ways people use utilities, and the barriers they face in accessing those services.

“This collaborative effort will help clarify each stakeholder’s role in making Tennessee’s infrastructure more resilient and sustainable while also addressing urban-rural disparities in the quality of service,” said Gilligan, who is also associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “Our initial focus of the research will include the TVA service area predominantly within the state of Tennessee and will later expand to include the whole southeast U.S.”

Researchers on the project have expertise in engineering, social work, sociology, economics and computer science. Current nonacademic entities contributing to the project include the Tennessee Valley Authority, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, three departments in the Tennessee state government and regional planning organizations in Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga.

“No matter where they live, people should have access to reliable, sustainable infrastructure and technologies that improve their lives in an equitable way,” Camp said. “This grant is providing researchers who live and work in the state the opportunity to look closely at how Tennesseans live and work, ultimately establishing a framework for improvement that can meet the needs of communities across the state.”

The impacts of climate change, outdated infrastructure and rapid technological shifts amplify vulnerabilities in communities, and the time is ripe to explore innovations that can solve many problems at the same time. Gilligan, Camp and their collaborators will look into the connections among electricity, transportation and broadband telecommunications infrastructure to understand how people in different communities use them and how their lives change as new infrastructure offers more opportunities and choices. The team will give special attention to differences between urban and rural communities to see how new infrastructure options can benefit them.

“This project tackles particularly complex and intersectional issues, specifically transportation and information technology infrastructure, that play a critical role in individual economic upward mobility,” said Courtney Cronley, co-primary investigator on the project and associate professor of social work at UTK. “This project intentionally involves the community and key stakeholders in the scientific process from the very beginning. The result, we hope, will be proposed solutions to bridging the transportation and technological divides in the TVA region in ways that promote equitable access to sustainable infrastructure.”

The cross-sectional research will further allow the team to document how academics from diverse disciplines work together, and with external stakeholders, to create a suite of best practices for future use. The project will produce a plan for a research network that will deliver practical and useful results for members of diverse constituencies and will develop new tools for education and public outreach so that all involved stakeholders will be able to understand and fully participate in planning for the future.

“We are excited about this ambitious interdisciplinary and cross-university team collaboration in Tennessee,” said Chien-fei Chen, co-primary investigator on the project and research associate professor and director of education and diversity program at the National Science Foundation funded engineering research center, Center for Ultra-wide-area Resilient Electric Energy Transmission Networks. “We are passionate about improving and understanding energy, transportation and telecommunication infrastructure in the south of the United States by connecting rural and urban areas. This team will set up a good research model for researchers who are interested in similar work.”

The UTK team also includes Charles Sims, associate professor of economics and director of the Energy and Environment Program at the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy, Kevin Tomsovic, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of NSF-DOE Center for Ultra-wide-area Resilient Electrical Energy Transmission Networks, and Joshua Fu, John D. Tickle Professor and James. G. Gibson Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.