The Gibbs Spotlight: Dr. Si Chen

GCA Communications Intern Kathlyn Dannewald (K) sat down with Dr. Si Chen (S) a visiting assistant professor in the Regional and City Planning Department here at Gibbs! We sat down with Dr. Si Chen to learn about her background and experiences in the field of Regional and City Planning. With a background in computer science, Dr. Si Chen’s expertise focuses on the intersection of new technologies and city planning. Read on for highlights or click the link below to access the full podcast. 

K: Hello everyone, welcome to the Gibbs Spotlight. My name is Kathlyn Dannewald, and I am a communications intern at the Gibbs College of Architecture. Today we are talking to Dr. Si Chen, who is a visiting assistant professor in the Regional and City Planning Department. She completed her Bachelor’s in Urban and Rural Planning in 2014 and her master’s in Urban and Regional Planning in 2016, and her master’s in Computer Science in 2020. She also just successfully defended her dissertation and earned her PhD in Spatial Informatics. Congratulations on that, by the way! Thank you so much for being here. Would you like to start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and your role at Gibbs? 

S: Yes, thank you for the interview. And thank you for your introduction to me. I just finished my defense. And my research mostly focused on how to explore how big data, computational technologies, and digital social networks can be integrated with spatial temporal analysis to enhance the adoption of technologies in practical urban planning. I have been in the Division of Regional and City Planning for about three years. I just joined Gibbs this semester, and I have really enjoyed the life here. We have a very flexible and supportive working environment. And I teach Urban Planning History for the graduate students and Planning Practice for the undergraduate students for this [Fall 2020] semester. Thank you.  

K: Can you tell us a little bit about how you ended up here at the University of Oklahoma? So, like your education and career leading up to now? 

S: Yeah, sure. So, I got my educational training still in urban planning, but I had a quite interdisciplinary background. So, I also extend my background to like informatics and computer science. So, my PhD is just called Urban Informatics – that is its concentration. So, I’m attracted by their multidisciplinary research and working environment by Gibbs. And there’s the faculties. We were in different divisions. But literally, I think the ages between different disciplines are weaker within our college compared with other like separate departments. And that is really attractive to me. 

K: Thanks so much. So, you talked a little bit about some things that drew you to like the computer science side of things, but what initially drew you to like regional and city planning? 

S: So, my researches are based on the planning support system, which is a type of decision support system. And I treat it as the main portal to apply data analytics and visualization to practical urban planning. And so my research has put like great emphasis on how to improve the implementation and design of planning support systems. And that is the main way I see how computer science can be integrated with urban planning. 

K: That’s super interesting. I think regional and city planning is very interesting. I’m not a RCPL student, but I’ve taken a few classes. And so it’s really interesting to see how technology has started to meld with that. I’ve also done a little bit of GIS stuff. So, it’s interesting just to see from that level. 

S: Yeah, the most attractive thing like to learn regional and city planning is you can see what you have worked can really change people’s lives and can really improve the future of development. So that is great to see. 

K: You talked a little bit about computer science, but besides that, are there any specific areas of interest you have within the field of city planning? 

S: Oh, well, computer sciences literally is not within regional planning. But there is a new trend for like AI urban planning, which is trying to involve community science technologies into urban planning. And for the other concentrations, so, technology is just a type of tool or a method. And the topics that I’m mainly applied technologies on – usually there is spatial analysis and environmental studies and also the transportation studies as well as their community engagement. So, some planning support system – a lot of planning support systems, they have, our final task is to promote better citizen participation into the policy discussion in the plan making process with the interactive interface or sometimes there’s a participatory interface. Yeah, just different words. 

K: You talked a little bit about this, touched on it earlier, but what is your favorite aspect of being here at Gibbs? 

S: We can see some fliers in the building that say engaging communities. So once thing that attracted me is focused on community engagement, working closely with communities. And that is one perspective. And secondly, is this focus on the diverse education environment. And this diversity is reflected on the, like students’, different backgrounds, and races, and also ages, and there certainly is still like interdisciplinary opportunities across different like divisions. Potentially, I can see many collaboration opportunities across disciplines. And through working with other faculties from other divisions, we can form our, like, mutual learning process. And also we can probably be intrigued with some interdisciplinary approaches. And fourthly, I feel like a strong support from, like, from the deans, directors and colleagues in both teaching and life. So when I was newly here, I was still our new faculty, and I got a lot of guidance in teaching from my colleagues and my directors. And also they helped me with my living there. Yeah, they were searching for apartments. Yeah. 

K: That’s awesome. Yeah, I’m not, like I said, not a student in Gibbs directly, but they encourage a lot of people who aren’t necessarily in the college, to take classes in the college. And like I mentioned, I got to take some city planning classes. So, they do really encourage the interdisciplinary side of things, which I really appreciate, as someone who’s not necessarily an architecture student, but I get to still benefit from that side of things. 

S: Yeah, you can feel the high flexibility in the research and studying environment.  

K: Yeah, it’s really awesome. So, what do you think the future holds for you beyond Gibbs? 

S: I will look forward to more collaborations with other colleges – like data science, or the people from data science, or from computer science or geography. And to like, further create the methodologies and systems to apply advanced data analytics to support more like reasonable and efficient urban information management and plan making process. The fundamental goal is to promote more sustainable and resilient communities. 

K: Do you have any advice for students going into regional and city planning? 

S: I misunderstood that question. It’s like, I thought that questions was, do you have any comment for the development of the division of regional and city planning? 

K: You could talk about that as well if you would like to.  

S: No, no, I don’t have any comments. I feel it’s very good now. So for the students, I will encourage them to like, train themselves with more cross disciplinary, theoretical knowledge and interdisciplinary view, keep an interdisciplinary view in learning. And also try to like practice, their ability, their ability in plan making, and also their ability to apply the knowledge that they learn to the practical planning field, and throw some like, maybe practical exercise with the real projects. Like, that is also what I have like, put focus on. So in some of my teaching, I invited some like real clients to join in our final presentation. and for our final project. And the prerequisite for it is that the final project should be our real project. That’s just my teaching philosophy.  

K: Thank you. That’s really great advice, really, for any student, not just within regional and city planning. 

S: Yeah, not only, but more for regional planning, I feel like it needs to be a trend. Because right now, Smart City is a very important concept, but we can see the implementation rate of Smart City strategies are not high. And I can see one main reason is that the lack of training for urban planning students or lack of education in urban planning in interdisciplinary knowledge, and especially the AI technologies, that are a kind of technical, technical knowledge. And that is kind of one reason for this low acceptance rate for those smart systems. And also for the difficulty, the local planners, they have some difficulties to talk with people from the technical field. And such difficult dialogue is somehow because they don’t have any technical knowledge background. 

K: Yeah, that makes sense. And it seems like the future of cities is going to require a lot of technical background. Not only for planning, but for solving some sustainability issues. 

S: Yes, yeah. Initially, it is a very interdisciplinary major. Yeah. I can see in the future in urban planning, there will be main, like two types of planners. One is like a technology oriented and one is social, social issue oriented. So two trends, the two most popular trends. 

K: Yeah, I could definitely see that happening as well. Are there any other comments or projects you’d like to mention today? 

S: That’s all. I think we have had a very comprehensive interview. 

K: Thanks again to everyone for listening to the Gibbs Spotlight. Tune in next time to hear more stories from the Gibbs College of Architecture. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.