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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This app connects strangers in two cities across the world. But can it tackle urban loneliness?

New Delhi, in India, where many of Duet-App's users come from. Image: Ville Miettinen

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people”. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

Our relationship to where we live and the spaces we inhabit define who we are and how we feel. But how often do we articulate the emotional impact of this relationship, whether this be loneliness, frustration or even civic pride?

“When I moved to a new city, started living alone, wanted to drink less, stay indoors more, and when I realised that I cannot make any more best friends.”

A new social network, a simple app that connects two individuals from the UK and India, aims to counter some of these issues.  Over the course of a year connected pairs receive one question a day through the app and their responses are exchanged with each other. A simple interaction that gradually builds a series of one-on-one relationships and invites users to imagine, over time, the other person living their life.

Distant geographies are an implicit part of the experience, therefore many of the questions nudge users to explore correlations between their physical and emotional landscapes. The data shows us that many of the Duet-App users are located in populous urban cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Manchester, Leeds and London, places that can just as often discourage feelings of belonging and place-making as much as they foster them.

“I had thought I'd never be able to live here again. but here I am living again at home after almost a decade living elsewhere. Living in Mumbai is a contact sport, and I can't do without it's chaos and infectious energy.”

Mumbai, India. Image: Deepak Gupta

In general cities are getting bigger and spreading wider at the same time as our communications are increasingly being conducted online and via digital gateways.

There is a sense that much of our online personas project an idealised version of ourselves; we increasingly document and express our daily lives through a filter and we are not always comfortable with a spontaneous expression of ourselves. Duet-App seeks to foster alternative digital relationships that through their anonymity allow us to be more honest and free.

“I feel a lot of people assume that I always have a lot going on for me and everything's always happy and amazing. I wish they could appreciate... how much of my own anxiety I swim in every single day. I appear and behave “normal” on the outside, calm and composed but there are always storms going on in my head.”

In exploring the responses to the questions so far, those that often garner the most replies relate directly to how we feel about our personal position in the world around us. Often these questions act as provocations not only to share responses but to reflect and articulate our thoughts around how we feel about what we are doing in the here and now.

Manchester, another popular city for Duet-App users. Image: Julius 

“Sometimes I feel sad about it [getting old] because I saw how easy it would be to feel lonely, and the fact that the world is set up for able-bodied young people is a bit of a travesty.”

Although many social media platforms allow for distant engagement and access into the lives of others we are in the main still curating and choosing our friendship circles. Through Duet-App this is randomised (and anonymised) with the intention of bypassing the traditional mechanics of how we broker online relationships. While directly exploring the digital space as a place for intimacy.


“Where do you go for peace?

“Well the internet, really. I do some mindless browsing, peek into the fandoms, listen to a few songs. Calms me down.”

Snapshots into the lives of someone existing and playing out their lives remotely can highlight shared concerns that break down preconceptions of how life is lived by others. Prompted by the reflections of a stranger exposed to our lives, digital relationships can encourage us to address the physical space we inhabit and the effects that the cities we live out our lives in have on our own well being. 

Catherine Baxendale is director of Invisible Flock.

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