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Urbantech Startups and the Cities of the Future

Words by 3p Contributor
Energy & Environment
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By Shaun Abrahamson

People are moving to cities at an unprecedented rate. The chart below shows how our urban population is forecast to grow, even after quadrupling since the 1950s.

It also shows targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change (specifically targets set by the European Union for greenhouse gas emissions). Since cities currently account for about 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, if we cannot change how we build and operate cities, we have little hope of achieving our climate goals.

Simply put: We need cities to be smart if they are to serve the needs or more people, even as they must shrink emissions.

What is a smart city?


Smart city has come to mean something quite specific -- technology that is sold to local government agencies to enable them to better deliver services. But we’ve noticed that many companies having an impact on cities are selling to businesses and consumers. Startups like Uber, Waze and Nest are less than a decade old but are dramatically reshaping how we move around and how we reduce our energy consumption and footprint.

Over the last 18 months, Urban.Us researched hundreds of startups and created a radar plot of their solutions -- who they sell to and what city problems they solve. We believe we’re seeing a rapid increase in founders and investors who want to solve city problems. For this reason we believe startups are poised to solve many of our biggest city challenges.

Direct energy solutions


It’s very common to see startups working directly on demand-side energy problems. They are trying to answer the question: How do we make more efficient buildings? Take Radiator Labs, for example, which created a retro-fit radiator cover called the Cozy. The Cozy allows you to control temperature in each room by trapping the heat inside its thermal lining. Using sensors placed outside, the Cozy to measure the temperature of the room, fans automatically turn on to push heat out into the room when it’s cold, and turn off and trap heat inside of the Cozy when the room heats up. There are over 120 million radiators nationwide posing a huge opportunity for efficiency.

While a single Cozy may be a simple matter of comfort, when a whole building is hooked up, data from the devices can be used to figure out when the building receives too much heat. From initial pilots, the answer is pretty shocking -- knowing this information allows Cozy to reduce fuel use by 40 percent. Now imagine instead of reducing the amount of energy used by a single building in Manhattan with a thousand homes, how much energy an entire city could save by installing a device like this in just 10 percent of the city’s buildings.

Similarly, Flair Vents allows homeowners to control airflow to different rooms through a smartphone app. Like the Cozy, it uses sensors to automatically adjust the airflow when a room is too hot or cold. Again, this may be a matter of comfort, but imagine how many hotel rooms in South Florida are being cooled at the same temperature whether the room is occupied or not. How much energy could implementing this startup technology in 10 percent of South Florida’s hotels save? Startups like these have the potential to dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of our cities today and in the future.

At this year's Smart City Startups ConferenceMeterHero, Rach.io, Lagoon and Zuli will be some of the startups focused on efficiency solutions. Attendees will have the opportunity to see, touch, and demo these efficiency technologies along with 10 others featured in Direct Energy’s smart mobile exhibit.

Indirect energy solutions


Mobility has been hot for a few years. It helps that Uber is one of today’s most valuable private companies. But ride sharing and hailing is not alone in its transformation of mobility options. As the chart below shows, many mobility solutions are seeing exponential growth. Urbanization and connectivity have made it possible to adopt car sharing, bike sharing and new personal mobility devices, not to mention pop-up mass transit and new apps that help us quickly select optimal transit options for specific occasions. In fact, according to Frost & Sullivan, car sharing memberships are forecasted to exponentially grow to around 26 million by 2020.

People are really rethinking how we move people and things around cities. Sometimes convenience or better economics may be the cursory value proposition, the main impact appears to be fewer cars on the roads. This in turns leads to lower emissions. This is crritical, since mobility is one of the biggest contributing factors to climate change in cities. For example, Zipcar estimates that it helps eliminate the need for up to 15 personally owned vehicles and its members have reduced collective emissions by more than 1.4 billion pounds of CO2 in just the past year alone.

This year’s Smart City Startups Conference will have an emphasis on mobility. We will be featuring startups that are building innovative personal mobility solutions like:


  • OneWheel, a one wheeled electric skateboard to quickly and easily get you to and from mass transit;

  • Whill, an all terrain wheelchair making hard to navigate spaces, like stairs, is a thing of the past for people with disabilities;

  • DASH, a hardware plugin tool that syncs to your mobile phone to turn any car into a smart car, unlocking enhanced performance, cost savings and social driving;

  • Vinli, a platform that allows to build your own smart car application;

  • Placemeter, computer vision technology giving you the power of knowing what a place is like before you get there, to see how crowded a place is, how long the wait is and whether it will get more or less crowded in the next hour;

  • ValetAnywhere, an app enabled service that picks up your car, parks it and returns it directly to you;

  • Bandwagon, an app to share rides in taxis and car services — matching passengers in cities, at events, and airport taxi lines and many more.

  • Transitmix, a new tool to vastly improved public transit design created by a team that used to design space stations.

Mobility vs. location, location, location


One of the most exciting discussions will be “Disrupting Location: How Mobility Startups Reshape Our Cities,” led by moderator Aimee Rawlins, startup and innovation editor for CNNMoney, and featuring Anand Shah, Venture Development at BMW Impact Ventures; Kyle Doerkersen, founder and inventor of OneWheel; Tiffany Chu, co-founder and chief design officer of Transitmix; and Chris Thomas, founder and partner of Fontinalis Partners.

Location is a central theme of how we choose where to live and work. Think about how you get to work. A few years ago you might have asked questions like. Do you need to drive? Is there affordable or convenient parking? How accessible is public transit? Now you might ask: is this area well served by Uber or Lyft? Is Zipcar or Car2go available? What about pop-up mass transit options? You might even ask: Can I Onewheel it?

These are all questions that will impact your decision of where to live. The panel will discuss recent changes to mobility options and what we might expect in the coming years. The explosion of choices, means we might be thinking about the value of location quite differently in coming years. What will this do to the value of different neighborhoods or style of development?

Mobility is just one of the themes at Smart City Startups. We’re excited to bring together so many of the very best startups that are working to make cities better. But this is more than fun for us. We’re anxious to see a lot more innovation from startups because as Anthony Townsend writes, “The coming century of urbanization is humanity’s last attempt to have our cake and eat it too, to double down on industrialization, by redesigning the operating system of the last century to cope with the challenges of the coming one.”

Image credits: 1) Urban.Us 2) Graphic credit: Urban.Us. Data credit: Urban.Us /EMBARQ

By Shaun Abrahamson, a serial entrepreneur, angel investor, author, CEO and co-founder of Urban.Us, an investment fund investing in startups that make cities better. He also produces Smart City Startups, an annual event that hosts 100 startups and over 1,000 people & organizations transforming our cities in the next decade, taking place April 23-24, 2015 in Miami, FL.

3p Contributor

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