Why startups are the key to smart cities

With increasing access to data and sensors being embedded throughout cities, the way we live in the urban environment is set to change forever

Why startups are the key to smart cities

For a long time, science fiction has been telling us that, rather than being concrete jungles, the cities of the future will be data-driven marvels. Whilst this may have seemed farfetched just a few decades ago, changes in technology have meant that this utopian vision is now becoming a reality. Quite simply, it is hard to overestimate the potential of smart cities.

There isn’t one single definition of what makes a city smart. However, most smart-cities innovations are driving toward the same aim. “A smart city is one in which technology is used to improve life for its inhabitants,” says Laurence Kemball-Cook, the founder and CEO of Pavegen, the producer of flooring that generates energy from footsteps. From giving city-dwellers access to data on pollution levels to optimising public transport, embedding innovative tech into the infrastructure of a city allows for all manner of incremental improvements to the urban environment. “A smart city offers seamless mobility, easy navigation and utilises wireless sensor networks to increase citizens’ quality of life,” he says.

And this is something that is becoming increasingly important in modern times. “Many urban centres around the world are growing in leaps and bounds,” says Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates, the organisation that promotes and champions London’s tech industry. “Many of these cities are only going to get larger as we continue to see people moving from more rural areas.” Over the next 15 to 20 years, the population of London is set to grow from 8.5 million to ten million. And this is already dwarfed by many cities in east and south-east Asia: Shanghai is currently home to 24.3 million people and there are many major cities in the region that aren’t far behind. “That puts a lot of pressure on many aspects of living there,” adds Shaw. Because of this, being smarter about the way we structure our cities isn’t just desirable: it’s a necessity.

One factor that has certainly helped smart cities become more of a reality is the ubiquity of cost-effective sensor technology. “You now have very cheap, throwaway sensors,” says Yodit Stanton, founder and CEO of OpenSensors.io, the real-time data exchange for the internet of things (IoT). When one considers the scale of the issues you are trying to solve, even a fairly modest rollout could require a network of 10,000 sensors; back when these costed £100 a piece, any smart cities technology would have been out of the reach of all but the largest corporates. “But once you’ve got them down to a pound each, the potential is endless,” she adds.

Another factor driving the boom in smart cities technology is the meteoric rise of big data and an increasing interest in open-data ecosystems. “For example, TfL opening up its data has made it much easier to create applications that improve the way people move in cities,” Kemball-Cook says. Coupled with the information gleaned from sensors and the enormous amount of social data that Londoners are creating on a daily basis, this means those developing smart-cities solutions have an incredibly rich data palette to work with. “Using big data will allow us to be much more efficient in how we construct and develop our cities,” Kemball-Cook adds.

Certainly unlocking greater efficiencies for their populations is one of the great benefits of cities embracing smart tech. “Analysing traffic patterns, the way zoning gets done, how people move and flow; these are all things that are going to keep our cities moving, keep them fresh, keep them dynamic,” says Shaw. However, smart-cities technology can do more than just optimise our existing assets: Singapore, for example, has created multipurpose green spaces on top of its skyscrapers that boost energy efficiency, help with water recycling, provide opportunities for urban agriculture and offer more recreation space for citizens. “There are some really good solutions out there that we should be embracing in the UK,” he says.

But if cities are to truly to make the most of these solutions, it will be essential to end the ring-fencing of individual elements of urban infrastructure. “City and national governments need to break down these silos, enable open planning and make sure that people are coming together,” Shaw says. Fortunately, this is something politicians are waking up to. Shaw makes reference to a chapter of The Silo Effect, the recent book by Gillian Tett, US managing editor of the Financial Times, which concerns Mayor Bloomberg’s work in breaking down the silos surrounding the New York Fire Department and his focus on encouraging the sharing of data between it and other agencies. “We’re starting to unlock things together, work collaboratively and not feel threatened by each other,” says Shaw.

And, thanks in part to the cheap availability of sensors, smart cities projects don’t necessarily have to be dictated by city hall, with plenty of activity in the space being driven at the community level. “Smart cities don’t need to be very large, top-heavy, top-down deployments,” says Stanton. In 2015, OpenSensors.io facilitated a project that was focused on air quality and noise around Heathrow Airport. Given this is something that is deeply important to the residents of that community, it volunteered its time and came together to place sensors around the neighbourhood. “Anyone can quickly connect a sensor, meaning people can create the projects that they’re interested in,” she says.

Perhaps inevitably, the fact it’s so easy to use sensors and data to start conducting these kinds of experiments has made the sector a fertile ground for quick-moving startups. “Startups are the only way that global cities are going to be able to adopt a new smart approach,” Kemball-Cook says. Given they have much slower innovation cycles, it’s harder for corporates to run the kinds of rapid iterative experiments done by their small counterparts. This means startups have a pivotal role to play in driving the sector forward. “You need disruptors in the market to facilitate this,” he adds. “It’s not possible without startups.”


However, despite their pivotal role in bringing smart cities to fruition, it’s far from plain sailing for startups. First of all, compared to other high-potential verticals like fintech, there is still a relative paucity of funding available for those creating smart-cities innovations. “There are early-stage investors and VC firms investing in these companies but we definitely need more in this space,” says Shaw. Whilst plenty of firms are eager to invest in smart-cities startups, in an industry where there have thus far been comparatively few exits, it is very difficult to predict how long it will take investors to see decent returns. “The return-on-investment time horizon may be longer than in other sectors,” he says. “That can be a limiting factor.”

Fortunately, even with a comparatively immature investment landscape, there are still plenty of bigger players coming together to help innovative startups bring their solutions to market. “There’s now a lot of support available for startups in the form of very specialised hubs for fintech, smart cities and, in our case, geolocation data,” says Gerrit Boehm, founder and CEO of OpenCapacity, the startup that measures and forecasts capacity on public transport. Whether it’s Level39’s Cognicity Hub or the Future Cities Catapult, plenty of resources have emerged to advise and champion startups operating in the sector, as well as put them in touch with the larger players that might be able to utilise and deploy their technology. “These people can help mentor startups and guide them in the right direction,” he says.

There are also things that can be done politically to help support and bolster smart-cities tech. The Mayoral Tech Manifesto 2016 – a recent joint project between Tech London Advocates, techUK and Centre for London – made recommendations about the ways in which the future mayor of London can help champion the city’s tech sector. As well as creating an open data charter and treating broadband like an essential utility, one of the manifesto’s key recommendations was the introduction of a chief digital officer, something seized upon by mayoral election frontrunners Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan. “If the incoming mayor is going to appoint a chief digital officer, the smart-cities agenda needs to be part of that,” says Shaw. “This will help to underpin a bigger, more dynamic smart-cities agenda for a city like London.”

There’s still some way to go before the UK could see its first smart city but there are fortunately some great examples being set globally. “A lot of cities around the world are doing everything they can to make sure that they’re positioned as a smart city,” says Adizah Tejani, head of ecosystem development at Level39, which houses the Cognicity smart-cities hub. “They’re doing it from scratch, whereas we are working with an infrastructure that’s over 100 years old.” However, whilst implementing smart-cities tech will be far harder for a city like London than it is for places such as Singapore, it’s important to remember that, as one of the global hotbeds of tech innovation, the UK is hardly out for the count. “We’ll constantly be evolving,” she says.


Opening doors


Having studied how ubiquitous computing and IOT can influence behaviour, there are few better placed than Gerrit Boehm to understand how smart-cities tech can help citizens. “Part of my PhD was about how to enhance public transport through persuasive technologies,” he says. Not long after completing the qualification, Boehm was urged to enter a FutureRailway competition on enhancing the customer experience and won with OpenCapacity, a novel smart-cities solution to train-carriage crowding.

OpenCapacity’s tool is the perfect example of how smart-cities tech can use readily available data to boost efficiency for services and consumers. “We use existing data sources that are already available on public transport – be that weight sensors, CCTV or wifi,” Boehm explains. “And we use these sensors to identify the number of passengers per carriage.” This is then combined with information from external sources including things like weather, information on sporting events and delay information. Not only can this help give passengers real-time and forecasted information on how full trains and carriages are but it can also help train operators optimise the number of carriages they have rolling at any given time.

It’s still comparatively early days for OpenCapacity but already many transport operators are getting in on the act; the startup already has three contracts pending, with two set to run live trials in the coming months. It also intends to bring its tech to smart cities across Europe. “There’s now a great demand within the industry for us to grow our team and cover as many train, bus and tram operators as we can,” says Boehm.

Paving the way


If there was a poster child for the smart cities movement, it’s safe to say it would be Pavegen. The brainchild of industrial design engineer Laurence Kemball-Cook, Pavegen was inspired partly by his time working on a project at E.ON to develop a new type of streetlight powered by solar energy and wind. Whilst this didn’t come to fruition, it got him thinking about other untapped energy sources in the urban environment. “I thought: ‘What if we could use the energy from a footstep alone to power part of a city?’” he recalls.

Pavegen’s technology replaces traditional paving slabs with tiles that generate power when people walk across them. “Every time you walk on the tile, it generates energy from each footstep,” Kemball-Cook says. “That energy can be stored within a battery, fed back into the grid and be used for real-time data.” This means that not only can Pavegen’s technology recapture some of the energy pedestrians expend when walking but it can also be used to get a granular perspective on how the public is moving around the urban environment.

Unsurprisingly, this has generated some serious attention for the startup. Not only did the company draw in a $1m series B and complete a colossal £2m crowdfunding campaign last year but it is now also aiming to create a lower cost product that will help some of the world’s poorest communities embrace smart cities tech. “Our aim is to be the intelligence inside future cities,” says Kemball-Cook. “We want to make our technology available to every favela, township and slum.”

Josh Russell
Josh Russell

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