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Beyond the Classroom

Professor Bill Sullivan Leads New Smart Cities Initiative

In 2018, Professor Bill Sullivan was happily leading the Department of Landscape Architecture when University administrators approached him with a unique opportunity: Would he consider directing ROKWIRE, a brand new smart, healthy cities initiative? 

ROKWIRE’s goal is to build an open-source platform for mobile devices to enable the smart, healthy communities of tomorrow. The platform would be capable of integrating multiple streams of data and sensor technologies, and present users with an app that provides personalized, timely support to meet their goals.

At first, Bill seemed like an unlikely choice to lead ROKWIRE. For starters, he knew very little about computer science. “I didn’t know the difference between an API and a BLT,” he jokes. But the administrators explained that they weren’t looking for a computer engineer to lead the project. They wanted someone who could lead an interdisciplinary team, who could energize the entire campus, clearly communicate the project’s goals, and keep ROKWIRE grounded in what mattered: improving the health and well being of communities.

Bill agreed to lead the initiative because he could sense how important it could become if it was done right. At first, he directed ROKWIRE part time while remaining Department Head. As ROKWIRE grew, he resigned as Department Head so that he could focus more of his efforts on ROKWIRE. 

Like many landscape architects, Bill has ample experience working on and leading interdisciplinary teams. His research has focused on how urban landscapes impact the health and wellbeing of people. He and his students measure the impact that green infrastructure has on people’s ability to recover from stressful experiences. They explore the effect that these spaces have on one’s physical activity, mental health, academic performance, and relationships with others. They share their findings with scientists, designers, planners, and policy makers in an effort to create healthier communities where people can thrive. Bill specializes in communicating his research in accessible ways that energize people and inspire them to make their communities better. 

Bill is also an ideal choice because he’s both a lover and a critic of mobile devices. He admits that he loves his devices, but he also recognizes that they don’t always make life better. They can contribute to the noise, confusion and feelings of overwhelm that most of us experience in modern life. “There have been many times when I’ve had to step away from social media or limit my phone use because I could sense that I was losing my ability to concentrate on more important tasks. I needed to slow down.” 

In fact, in 2018, he published a study that explored what happens when we spend our outdoor breaks on our mobile devices. We know that spending time in nature brings restorative benefits, but does nature provide the same benefits if we are using our laptops or checking our smartphones? Bill and co-authors Bin Jiang (PhD 2013) and Rose Schmillen (MLA 2016) found that the attention-boosting benefits of being in nature were “undermined by the use of an electric device.” Their study showed that using a portable electronic device while sitting on a park bench is a good way to “waste a break.” 

Bill has the sense that technology isn’t the answer to everything. “What I offer the smart cities initiative is that balance. We don’t want to create something that overwhelms people even more. We want to create something that weeds out the superfluous and presents people and city administrators with the information that will support their goals and make the world a better place.” 

For Bill, the goal of ROKWIRE or any smart city platform with mobile apps and services shouldn’t be to draw people even more to their mobile apps when they could be spending time in better ways. It should be to produce curated content to reduce the chaos.   Despite the many demands of ROKWIRE, Bill is still involved with the department. “I still give the occasional lecture, advise students, and do research. Right now I’m thinking about ways to merge these parts of my life. For instance, can we create an app that helps us get out more, and find routes to school or work that are more restorative?”