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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Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

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