Design of Cyber-Physical Systems students with a prototype for evaluating post-earthquake structural damage.

Design innovation then/now: Designing infrastructure

In celebration of UC Berkeley’s 150th birthday, we’re exploring Berkeley-driven design innovation from 1868 to today. Over the course of the year, we’ll take a look at researchers, creators, and makers who have been part of Berkeley’s “perpetual renaissance,” drawing connections across this timeline. In this post, we’ll focus on innovation in infrastructure.

When the earliest precursors to today’s College of Engineering (then known as the colleges of Mechanic Arts, Mining, and Civil Engineering) were founded as part of the original University of California in 1868, a focus on infrastructure — power, bridges, and other essentials for a growing state — could be seen in various components of the core curriculum. The new university’s first students often applied their lessons in a hands-on setting: advanced engineering students were even responsible for keeping the university’s power plant running as part of their shop course.

Early engineering students (UC Berkeley photo, via Berkeley Engineering).

These students, and their professors, played key roles as an era of technical innovations reshaped infrastructure in California and beyond. When California began to pioneer electrical infrastructure in the late 1800s (Berkeley’s neighboring city of San Francisco, for example, boasted the world’s first electric street lights), Berkeley professor Clarence Cory launched the university’s first electrical engineering courses, aimed at meeting the state’s growing demand in this area. Working with colleagues, Cory also established an electrical laboratory, supplying light and power to Berkeley’s campus. During this period on campus, the college’s engineers helped lead the development of high-voltage power transmission technologies, making it possible for San Francisco and Los Angeles to access hydroelectric power from the Sierra Nevada in the 1910s.

Perhaps it was unsurprising, then, that Berkeley innovators would also play pioneering roles a few decades later, as a new form of infrastructure — that of the fledgling field of computing—began to take shape. In 1977, for example, Berkeley graduate student Bill Joy (who would go on to co-found Sun Microsystems) played a key role in releasing Berkeley Software Distribution, an influential UNIX operating system. He encouraged hackers to improve on the software, laying the groundwork for a new approach to software development and distribution that would come to characterize the Open Source movement. As Open Source grew, developers contributed public, shared code that would be adapted for many uses, creating a broad base of what researchers term “digital infrastructure.”

Today, digital and physical infrastructure are increasingly linked: smart buildings automatically control systems like heating and security; urban planners look to insights from big data and predictive algorithms; residents find transportation with the help of smartphone apps. At Berkeley, design innovators are working at the cutting edge of this move toward hybrid infrastructure, often with a critical, human-centered eye — from College of Environmental Design faculty member Nicholas de Monchaux’s explorations of data and urban systems in Local Code to the Swarm Lab’s research on applications in the Internet of Things.

A student presents his team’s concept in Reimagining Mobility.

At the Jacobs Institute, this growing field has spurred the launch of new curriculum. A collaboration with Ford Motor Company, for example, has served as the foundation for Reimagining Mobility, an advanced Design Innovation course that was launched in fall 2016. In this course, students from diverse disciplines conceptualize novel interactions between people and transportation modes, often focusing on autonomous vehicles. Looking roughly a decade into the future, student teams consider trends that will shape infrastructure — from global urbanization to climate change—and propose concepts that have included an autonomous platform for transporting cargo, an interface for global nomads to access on-demand transit pods, and tools to increase the accessibility of autonomous vehicles for passengers with disabilities.

Elsewhere in Jacobs Hall, advanced civil and environmental engineering students are experimenting with new technologies to create devices and systems for smart infrastructure. In Design of Cyber-Physical Systems, a course taught by Scott Moura at Jacobs Hall, students design and prototype large-scale, technology-intensive systems for applications such as transportation and energy use, gaining skills with tools like sensors and microcontrollers in the process. Their projects have ranged from smart hydration monitors to a system for optimizing home energy-usage management.

As Berkeley and its fellow UC campuses look to the next 150 years, they aim to continue to lead in building infrastructure for California and the world. This includes the UC’s own home turf: in 2014, for example, the UC system opened a solar farm to help power its campuses, representing the largest university solar purchase to date and a step toward the university’s broader goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2025. It’s a far cry from the power plant that Berkeley students were tasked with running in the 1800s, but student leadership remains a constant: from designing transit solutions to prototyping smart energy monitors, Berkeley students are helping to build infrastructure that makes a difference for people and communities.

Previously in this series, we explored Berkeley-led design innovation in assistive technology. Visit our website to learn more about the Jacobs Institute, and explore 150 years of light across the Berkeley campus here.

By Laura Mitchell