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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To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.