Todd L. Pittinsky is a Professor in the Department of Technology and Society at Stony Brook University.
We all know technology can be simply amazing. We also know it can bring out the worst in us and suck up our time with apps, games, movies and more — all right there on our smartphones. As Stony Brook grows in size, stature and impact, one great way to positively differentiate ourselves within the SUNY system and, indeed, within the global university marketplace is to make the most smart, creative and human use of technology.
Where could we start?
How about by reducing a widely shared form of suffering on campus: finding a place to park? As Stony Brook grows, this problem is only going to get worse. Building an underground parking garage doesn’t seem to be in the cards any time soon. Meanwhile, cities from Los Angeles to New York are looking to apps to help solve their parking problems. How about an app for Stony Brook parking?
Here’s what it could do:
- Save time and frustration. Once you get where you’re going, it shouldn’t take another 20 minutes just to park. Students, staff and faculty have better things to do.
- Reduce harmful exhaust emissions by significantly reducing idling.
- Show that Stony Brook is serious about being a 21st-century campus.
How might it work? Here are some of the possibilities:
- Sensors: A parking app could communicate with sensors embedded in SBU parking spots that can tell if a spot has opened up, showing them on a map. It would be like seeing what seats are available on a plane or in a theater.
- Camera: A drone-mounted camera could “see” a whole parking lot or a stretch of street and determine by algorithm which spots are open, and in turn display that on an app.
- Crowd-sharing: An SBU parking app could leverage sensors in smartphones. In fact, a group at SUNY Buffalo reportedly is already trying this. Their app picks up from the sensors in other people’s smartphones whether, for example, cars in a lot are moving very slowly — probably looking for spots and not finding them — or if they suddenly speed up — probably just pulled out of a spot. If Buffalo can innovate, why can’t we?
- Parking enforcement: Using meter readers and parking attendants as scouts. While making their rounds, they could report empty spots to an app.
- Concierge: This would be a hybrid tech-and-touch solution. A concierge parks your car somewhere on the outskirts of campus and a simple app lets you request it back with the push of a button, which uses your smartphone’s GPS to tell the concierge where you are.
It is crucial, though, not only to specify what we want technology to do as we fold it into our communities, but what we want it to not do. In the case of a parking app, it should not distract us while we are driving. It should not be hackable. It should not get in the way of those who wish to continue to pray daily to the “parking gods.”
Even with such a seemingly straightforward convenience as easier parking, it will pay to focus more on the intersection of the technology and our individual and collective well-being — how we could live each day on campus more productively, humanly and joyfully. This is how we begin to truly understand the transformative power of technology and to chart our course not simply toward technology and society, but toward technology for society.
Stony Brook is on a roll in rankings, scholarly output, alumni network, campus facilities and school spirit, but it is still pretty much playing by the old rules for how a university grows and evolves — that is, by hiring more faculty and admitting more talented students. How about also setting a new standard for what a campus can be by looking at how, even in small ways, technology can make it a more joyful place to be?