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Joi Sears headshot

Cincinnati: Reinventing a City Through Sustainable Startups

By Joi Sears

It’s easy being green in the city of Cincinnati. In fact, the city is quickly becoming one of the greenest, most innovative cities in the country. No longer known for just chili, baseball and the second largest Octoberfest in the world (outside of Munich), Cincinnati is evolving into a hub for technology, sustainability and social innovation.

Startup Cincy

Many people think of the U.S. tech industry as a bi-coastal phenomenon, but between Silicon Valley and New York City lies 3,000 miles of countryside dotted with booming business hubs. In fact, within the next five years, the Midwest will have more startups than Silicon Valley. 

One of the fastest growing centers for tech innovation is Cincinnati. The city has seen the biggest startup growth in the nation as one of five metros jumping drastically in rank over the past year, according to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurship.

Home to the headquarters of 10 Fortune 500 companies, including Macy's and Procter & Gamble, the metropolitan area also supports a growing community of tech startups through accelerator programs, low business taxes and connecting entrepreneurs with established companies and funding.

"There's a community of entrepreneurship [here] that you wouldn't necessarily expect in a flyover city," Mike Bott,  the co-founder of popular Cincinnati-based startup accelerator, The Brandery - told Entrepreneur. Recognized as one of the top accelerator programs in the U.S., The Brandery pushes startups through a four-month program, providing each with $20,000 in seed money and mentorship.

And they’re not alone. Millions of dollars are invested in Cincinnati based startups each year through a variety of incubators, accelerators and innovative funding strategies. It’s not that Cincinnati has more money than other Midwestern cities, it’s just that those with the money are more deeply connected to the ecosystem of people and young companies with innovative ideas.

Sustainable Cincy

Cincinnati has about 60 sustainability initiatives outlined in the Green Cincinnati Plan which covers everything from renewable energy, to transportation, to food waste. The City’s ambitious sustainability efforts are focused on opportunities to meet multiple objectives at the same time.

“In addition to benefiting the environment, our initiatives must make economic sense (save money, create jobs) and improve quality of life for residents (improve public health, mobility, connectedness)” explained Ollie Kroner, the Sustainability Coordinator for the City of Cincinnati.

As a newly appointed, passionate Millennial, Kroner brings a fresh, visionary perspective to the position. “Our office takes on some of the world’s biggest, most challenging problems and we develop strategies that aim to improve quality of life for Cincinnatians as global citizens. It’s an opportunity to think big and be innovative. Honestly, it’s a big, difficult dream job” Kroner told TriplePundit.

And the city has already come a long way. It was one of the first major cities to move to 100 percent green energy for its residents and businesses through the city’s Green Electricity Aggregation program. Not only did this reduce city emissions by approximately 247,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year, but also saves nearly $7 million dollars for the city annually.

“There are several big picture issues we are looking at right now” said Kroner. “How can we accelerate the adoption of energy efficiency upgrades and solar energy? How can we divert our organic waste stream from the landfill? How can we prepare our city for electric vehicles? How can we embrace Smart City technologies to improve our environment, economy, and quality of life?”

The City of Cincinnati has several exciting projects on the horizon. “We are currently working to roll out curbside textile and housewares recycling for residents. Anything you would have taken to Goodwill will be accepted for curbside pickup. We estimate these items to constitute 11 percent of our current waste stream, so this is an opportunity to put a big dent in our landfilled waste.”

Solarize Cincinnati has installed solar panels on 20 homes in just the past two months and that pace is expected to accelerate. The Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati is pursuing anaerobic digestion to turn sewage sludge into an asset. This technology would replace incineration with a process similar to composting. Rather than burning the “waste,” sewage sludge can be a source of renewable energy and a fertilizer product. These are just a few of the many ideas the city is cooking up.

Innovative Cincy

When it comes to the intersection of sustainability and innovation, Cincinnati is certainly thinking outside the box. The city is exploring issues like how sustainability can be used to combat poverty, crime prevention through environmental design and how we can leverage the power of big data to drive change.

Last year the City of Cincinnati completed building a LEED Platinum Net-Zero district police headquarters. The new solar and geothermal powered building consumes less than 50 percent of the energy used by traditionally designed facilities of the same size, making it a strong contender for the greenest building in Ohio.

The Net-Zero Police Headquarters has green features that double as security features – like high-performance windows that insulate, but are also bulletproof; daylighting that reduces the need for artificial light, but also provides high visibility around the site and storm water collection that allows the rain to infiltrate into the soil, but also provides a physical barrier that would prevent a vehicle from crashing into the building. The city is currently evaluating the building’s performance to see if it can serve as a model for future city buildings.

One day in the not so distant future, cities all over the globe will be tapping into big data to assess and drive change amongst their constituents. They will be able to access clear and concise data from every department that they oversee. For the City of Cincinnati, the dream is already a reality.

“The City’s leadership has prioritized the use of data to drive good government decision-making.” explained Kroner. “We are currently working to build a dashboard of sustainability indicators to help us track the impact and progress of our sustainability initiatives. For example, by using smart sensors on our recycling bins, Cincinnati now has the largest publicly-owned body of recycling behavior data in the country. We use this data to target our outreach efforts to improve recycling participation rates.”

“Many aspects of sustainability require behavioral changes – drive less, eat healthier, drop empty cans in the recycling instead of the trash” said Kroner. “Generally speaking, people don’t like change. Old habits die hard. Designing a program that provides multiple benefits and minimizes harms is hurdle number one. Communicating the benefits of a proposed change can be even harder.”

However challenging the journey may be, it’s clear that Cincinnati is on the right track. It’s definitely one of the cities to watch in the coming years.

Image credits: 1) Mark Brown, 2) City of Cincinnati, 3) Flickr/Mark Seymor

Joi Sears headshot

Joi M. Sears is the Founder and Creative Director of Free People International, a social enterprise which specializes in offering creative solutions to the world's biggest social, environmental and economic challenges through the arts, design thinking and social innovation.

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