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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“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.