Every week heralds another report of a city researching, instigating, or developing smart city projects and initiatives. While almost all involve an industry stalwart such as Cisco, AT&T, Schneider Electric or Siemens, startups focused on smart city verticals are rapidly earning their rightful place. This article explores a number of innovative startups, the challenges they face in creating smart city solutions and how cities can help.
I've heard the observation more than once that startups only create products and technology that would interest themselves personally as its user. However, I couldn't find this further from the truth as I've had the pleasure to meet many startups creating life changing technology. Take smart cities technology; conservative estimates suggest there are over 450 start-ups in the smart city space. Such companies are involved in:
- Data-Driven Urban Planning
- Smarter Transport
- Environmental Sensors
- Waste Management
- Traffic/Transit Data
- Water Software & Analytics
- Disaster Management
Smart cities have innovative ideas
Some of the most innovative smart city solutions have emerged from startups including:
Shotspotter: A gunshot detection, acoustic surveillance technology that uses sensors to detect, locate and alert law enforcement agencies of illegal gunfire incidents in real time.
Soofa: Smart city displays and benches to engage citizens, improve safety and provide real-time communications.
Bigbelly: A solar-powered compacting waste bin that allows for up to five times the amount of waste as a traditional bin. It alerts the appropriate city department when it needs to be emptied reducings traffic jams and ensures that the cars take full rubbish bins instead of coming twice for half-full bins.
Parquery: Smart parking solutions using images and computer vision software to detect real-time on-street parking vacancy.
Crowded Cities: Training crows to recognize and pick up cigarette butts from city streets and parks. (Seriously, can you imagine any big corporation coming up with such an idea?)
Roadbotics: Monitors and manages roadways cost effectively and efficiently through an AI technology that automatically and precisely identifies and rates a wide array of important roadway features and conditions, including cracks, potholes, signage, vegetation, debris and other characteristics.
Aira: Using augmented reality, Aira connects people who are blind or low vision to a trained professional agent via a camera to live-stream video that can guide a visually impaired person through a public space. Ten airports, including ones in Seattle, Boston, Houston, Memphis and Minneapolis, currently offer zones where blind and visually impaired travelers can download the Aira app and use the service without charge.
The challenges for startups in creating smart cities
Startups create a series of unique challenges in the startup system including:
- The need to make meaningful connections with not only city elected officials but those responsible for procurement
- Their ideas need to scale across wildly different cities with different demographics and challenges
- Ideas can be difficult to test once you get past a simple app
- Some industries have more curb appeal than others, for example, it may be easier to get funding for a smart mobility idea than energy grid management
- There's a temptation to tack new technologies (blockchain anyone?) onto social problems without properly explaining the strengths and weaknesses of it's usage over other options
What cities and enterprises can do to progress startups in the smart city space
1. Create an entry point for startups - at whatever stage
It would be easy to assume the entry into the smart city space is incumbent upon winning a competition as almost every week another initiative is announced somewhere in the world whether Amsterdam, Berlin, Boston, New York, Paris, Hong Kong or Tanzania. Involvement may provide a company with publicity and media exposure, but more importantly it can provide connections with incubators and accelerators to help a young company gain specialist skills. This allows introductions to not only funders but city officials - crucial for any smart city project to become a reality. As David Edmonson, Executive Director of the Austin Tech Alliance explained detailing the motivation for a smart city challenge in Austin: “Startups are often hungry to work on civic challenges facing Austin, but there are no easy means for them to get plugged in with community leaders."
2. Create infrastructure for trialing and testing
The smartphone, the cloud, low-cost broadband, open data and open-source technologies are all great enablers for smart city development. However, startups need a space to create. Amsterdam, arguably considered Europe’s most successful smart city, has the world’s first iBeacon Living Lab and public LoRaWAN. The Amsterdam Open Beacon network launched in September 2016, spreading 300 beacon sensors across the city. Startups can use the network for free while integrating it into their own applications.
Equally, the city of Bristol created Bristol Is Open, a joint venture between the University of Bristol and Bristol City Council. Three networks are integrated through software-defined control: fiber in the ground, a wireless het-net along the Brunel Mile area of Bristol with wi-fi, 3G, and 4G and a radio frequency mesh network deployed on 2,000 of the city’s lamp posts. Alongside, the University is carrying out 5G research and delivering the UK’s first 5G urban deployment. This platform is allowing companies of all sizes to come and test new technology in a real-world environment rather than just inside a laboratory.
3. Provide a way to cut through red tape
Surely the pain of any new business is dealing with paper work, bureaucracy and red tape. A number of cities have created an underlying support infrastructure that enables smart city startups to get into place faster and begin working on what they do best. For example, The New Business Acceleration Team (NBAT), an inter-agency initiative in New York, has provided new businesses with streamlined services to navigate government regulations, including, for example, expedited design reviews and regulatory inspections that allow new businesses to open more quickly. They reduced the average amount of time it took to open a new business by 2.5 months and helped more than 7,000 new businesses open, generating more than 50,000 jobs in NYC.
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