Here are eight startups developing technological solutions to global urban problems

An artist's impression of Green City Solutions' City Tree in action in Paris. Image: Green City Solutions.

Across the world, the accelerating wave of urbanisation is contributing to greater, more complex challenges for cities that require an urgent response.

Air pollution, to take one example, is choking cities and citizens, a growing problem across the developing world and in burgeoning cities in developed nations. The World Health Organization warns pollution is causing millions of premature deaths, urging action including more green spaces in cities.

One innovative startup in Berlin, GreenCity Solutions, has built a revolutionary urban air filter – The City Tree – combining air purifying, specialized-moss cultures and the latest in Internet of Things (IoT) technology. The storey-high, free standing and largely self-sustaining CityTree packs the air filtration power of 275 trees into a tiny fraction of the space and maintenance cost.

In cities around the globe, startups and social enterprises are developing inventive, technology-driven solutions to tackling urban challenges. GreenCity Solutions is one of these game-changing companies, and has been recognized as a Global Urban Innovator by the NewCities Foundation, an international nonprofit dedicated to making cities connected, inclusive, healthy and vibrant.

The Global Urban Innovators program is designed to recognse innovative young companies that are reimagining new solutions from the ground up – and in effect, shaping the cities of tomorrow.

The 2017 Class of Global Urban Innovators, announced on 2 May, is global in scope and features technological solutions and products that are leveraging IoT, artificial intelligence, and cutting-edge data production and analysis to improve everyday life for residents of cities and enhance the life of the city itself.

The innovations that enhance the human experience range from Green City Solutions’ clean air creating technology to Safetipin, a mobile app created in the Indian city of Gurgaon,  that crowdsources and relays public security information. Safetipin recently completed a street safety audit for New Delhi, including data from over 60,000 users, while at the same time offering digital tools for ensuring a safe trip home for women across the city.

Others improve our experience traveling in cities, such as Songdo-based Alt-A, a sensor technology and data-crunching effort to make the streets safer through alert systems, and 3D-mapping analytics of vehicle-human traffic flows. In San Francisco, Spin is reimagining bikesharing with a fleet of GPS-equipped smart bikes that are unlocked using a mobile app and can be dropped off at any bike parking spot.

Cape Town-based WhereIsMyTransport, an open platform providing a detailed look at formal and informal public transport options in African cities, both improves experience for users and provide emerging cities with crucial transportation data for better planning.

“We believe in the potential of reliable and openly available public transport data to empower and transform emerging cities,” says Devin de Vries, co-founder of WhereIsMyTransport. “Our technological solutions make this possible.”


Meanwhile, innovators are also leveraging technology to tackle problems that affect the life of the city itself, at operations level, street level and delivery of services. Where cities everywhere continue to struggle with effective public consultation, ZenCity, in Tel Aviv, is showing how Artificial Intelligence can unlock new opportunities for digital engagement, capturing residents’ perceptions of the city across social media, the web and traditional channels such as 311 calls. 

And Small Change is creating large changes in the way Pittsburgh connects much needed finance for high-impact neighborhood urban development projects through equity crowdfunding.

IoT technology is also creating opportunities to reimagine how cities deliver their most essential services. Paris-based CityTaps partners with city utility companies and, through smart water meters and mobile money, is making the case for equitably delivering urban utilities. 

“Our vision is to bring running water to every urban home in the developing world,” says Grégoire Landel, CEO of CityTaps. “With access to water, public health is greatly improved while saving time and money for the urban poor.” 

In cities around the world, urban innovators are seizing the potential of emerging technologies, as well as the need to collaborate with those driving innovation. The Global Urban Innovators count among the most promising and most advanced projects anywhere. 

These forward-thinking entrepreneurs will take the stage at the NewCities Summit – the NewCities flagship event – in Incheon Songdo, South Korea from 7-9 June, where a global community of experts will delve into the new realities facing today’s cities with a focus on the theme Thriving Cities: The Building Blocks of Urban Wellbeing

The wider implications of the disruptive use of technology bring to the forefront this urban era’s most important questions and, possibly, some innovative answers. Exploring these questions and their impact on the city through the eyes of today’s innovators themselves will be crucial for building urban well-being in the years and decades to come.

Thomas Ledwell is director of communications, and Adam Cutts research coordinator, at NewCities.

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How can we stop city breaks killing our cities?

This couple may look happy, but they’re destroying Barcelona. Image: Getty.

Can’t wait to pack your bags and head off on holiday again? It used to be that people would look forward to a long break in summer – but now tourists have got used to regular short breaks through the year. We love to jet off to the world’s glittering cities, even if only for a day or two. The trouble is, binge travelling may be killing the places we visit.

You may even have seen some “tourists go home” graffiti on your last trip, and it’s not hard to see why. Barcelona is a good example of how a city can groan under the weight of its popularity. It now has the busiest cruise port, and the second fastest growing airport in Europe. Walking through the Barcelona streets at peak season (which now never seems to end) flings you into a relentless stream of tourists. They fill the city’s hot spots in search of “authentic” tapas and sangria, and a bit of culture under the sun. The mayor has echoed residents’ concerns over the impact of tourism; a strategic plan has been put in place.

It is true though, that cities tend to start managing the impact of tourism only when it is already too late. It creeps up on them. Unlike visitors to purpose-built beach destinations and national parks, city-break tourists use the same infrastructure as the locals: existing systems start slowly to stretch at the seams. Business travellers, stag parties and museum visitors will all use existing leisure facilities.

‘Meet the friendly locals’, they said. Image: Sterling Ely/Flickrcreative commons.

Barcelona may only be the 59th largest city in the world, but it is the 12th most popular with international visitors. Compared to London or Paris, it is small, and tourism has spiked sharply since the 1992 Olympics rather than grown steadily as in other European favourites like Rome.

Growth is relentless. The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) even speaks about tourism as a right for all citizens, and citizens are increasingly exercising that right: from 1bn international travellers today, we will grow to 1.8bn by 2030, according to UNWTO forecasts.

Faced with this gathering storm, just who is tourism supposed to benefit? Travellers, cities, residents or the tourism industry?

Market forces

Managing the impact of tourism starts by changing the way destinations market themselves: once the tourists arrive, it’s too late. Tourism authorities need to understand that they are accountable to the city, not to the tourism industry. When the city of Barcelona commissioned the University of Surrey to look into how it might best promote sustainable development, we found a series of techniques which have been incorporated, at least in part, into the city’s 2020 Tourism Strategy.

In the simplest terms, the trick is to cajole tourists into city breaks which are far less of a burden on the urban infrastructure. In other words, normalising the consumption of sustainable tourism products and services. In Copenhagen, 70 per cent of the hotels are certified as sustainable and the municipal authority demands sustainability from its suppliers.

Higher than the sun. A primal scream from the world’s cities? Image: Josep Tomàs/Flickr/creative commons.

Destinations must also be accountable for the transport impact of their visitors. The marketing department might prefer a Japanese tourist to Barcelona because on average they will spend €40 more than a French tourist – according to unpublished data from the Barcelona Tourist Board – but the carbon footprint we collectively pay for is not taken into account.

Crucially, for the kind of city breaks we might enjoy in Barcelona, most of the carbon footprint from your holiday is from your transport. Short breaks therefore pollute more per night, and so destinations ought to be fighting tooth and nail to get you to stay longer. It seems like a win for tourists too: a few extra days in the Spanish sun, a more relaxing break, and all accompanied by the warm glow of self-satisfaction and a gold star for sustainability.


Destinations can also target customers that behave the most like locals. Japanese first-time visitors to Barcelona will crowd the Sagrada Familia cathedral, while most French tourists are repeat visitors that will spread out to lesser-known parts of the city. Reducing seasonality by emphasising activities that can be done in winter or at less crowded times, and geographically spreading tourism by improving less popular areas and communicating their particular charms can also help reduce pressure on hot spots, much like Amsterdam is doing.

Turnover is vanity, and profit margins are sanity. No city should smugly crow about the sheer volume of visitors through its gates. If tourism is here to stay, then the least cities can do is to sell products that will have the greatest benefit for society. Whether it’s Barcelona, Berlin, Bologna or Bognor, there should be a focus on locally and ethically produced products and services which residents are proud to sell. Tourist boards should work with small businesses that offer creative and original things to do and places to stay, adding breadth to the city’s offering.

The ConversationWhether Barcelona will introduce these ideas will depend on the bravery of politicians and buy-in from the powerful businesses which are happily making short-term profits at the expense of residents and the planet. It is possible to do things differently, and for everyone to benefit more. It may be that the tipping point lies in the age-old mechanics of supply and demand: bear that in mind next time you’re booking a quick city break that looks like it’s only adding to the problem.

Xavier Font is professor of marketing at the University of Surrey.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.