How Metro21’s Karen Lightman Connects People and Technologies

Karen Lightman, executive director of Metro21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, found her passion for innovation and connection exactly where she is now—at Carnegie Mellon University.


Her interest in technology began as a student in the 1990s, when she put on an early version of a virtual reality headset. After graduation, she worked at CMU’s Center for Economic Development and then in the MEMS (MicroElectroMechanical Systems) and sensor technology industry—experiences that showed her the necessity of broadband and the value of connections across siloes, systems and communities.


 “Setting up 40,000 streetlights is great, but how will they be powered? How will they be connected?” said Lightman. “How is technology improving quality of life for all citizens?”

Fast forward to today. Lightman has been back at CMU since 2017, and her commitment to innovation has only gotten stronger.


Partnerships that address real-world problems


Metro21’s roots reach back to 2009 with the creation of Traffic 21, a multi-disciplinary research institute of Carnegie Mellon University. Traffic 21 designs, tests, deploys and evaluates different solutions to help improve the local transportation system. Traffic 21 helped make Pittsburgh a “living lab” for new technology solutions that can be applied around the nation and the globe.


Now, Metro21 expands the focus beyond transportation, to technology research, development and deployment. As Executive Director, much of Lightman’s work, involves helping university researchers take their technology out of the lab, then put it to use with municipal and equity partners.


“We co-create with them in design, deployment and evaluation to solve real-world problems,” she said.


Many applications come from community suggestions. For instance, when COVID-19 began, Metro21 pivoted their machine learning application to deliver 6,000 meals a month to families in need during the pandemic. Since July 2020, Lightman’s team of seven interns—all women—have been working with faculty, a local school district and community partners like The United Way to keep families fed.


Considering equity and the big picture in every solution


For Lightman, ”It’s not just the bright shiny delivery of a new technology that matters, it’s everything around it. Solutions have to be equitable and implemented with the least negative externalities.”


You have to take into account the entirety of a user’s resources and circumstances. For example, free internet connectivity at a public library assumes a reliable car for getting there, plus the ability to afford gas. And this brings transportation solutions into the equation.


“Scooters, bikes, public transportation—it all has to be coordinated,” she said.  


The common thread: connection

Lightman and her team have a full and varied slate of projects for the new year, from testing out smart solutions in rural areas, connecting smart buildings and transport, exploring autonomous technology and continuing to partner on issues like food security. 


Progress is an iterative process, Lightman said, with partnerships the essential ingredient. “You just have to keep pushing to do the most you can and bring as many people under the tent as you can.”


Learn more about Metro21 at

Other news