Why Startups Believe They Can Solve Cities’ Greatest Challenges

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Smart City Startups 2015 participants gather at the Miami Light Project in Wynwood, Miami, Fla. (Photo: Tim Mudd)

Flying cars wiz across the dense, underworld-like landscape as an ominous, synthesized musical score accompanies the action. That’s Los Angeles in the year 2019, as portrayed in the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner.

“Any future without the Internet and smartphones is bound to get a few things wrong,” said Shaun Abrahamson, Co-Founder, Urban.US, during the opening talk of Smart City Startups 2015. “But what Blade Runner gets right are the big challenges facing cities today – challenges like climate change, poverty and homelessness.”

The film’s cautionary tale of the implications of technology on society and the environment, served as a useful frame for a conference focused on urban challenges and solutions.

Blade Runner introduced a future world where high-tech places stand in contrast to the decayed. Thirty-three years after the film’s future predictions, today’s cities are indeed grappling with the remnants of past thinking as economic currents speed faster forward in the information age.

Across the globe – we see infrastructure, regulations, service delivery processes and jurisdictional boundaries with roots in a former time, inhibiting the implementation of promising technologies and practices to improve sustainability and resilience, mobility and governance.

Startups, investors, foundations and cities gathered for the Smart City Startups conference in a neighborhood that embodies the crossroad of past and future in Miami. Once the warehouse and manufacturing district, Wynwood’s shuttered factories and neglected warehouses now house graffiti-coated art galleries, restaurants, cafes and creative businesses.

DSC_0019A street corner in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami, Fla. (Photo: Tim Mudd)

For those whose lives and businesses are invested in the success of urban environments, the tension between the old and the new – and its most intractable outgrowths – cannot go unaddressed. There is simply too much at stake.

Can Startups Transform Cities?

As a dedicated partner in the improvement of cities, NLC was a participating sponsor of Smart City Startups 2015. Over the course of the two-day conference, attendees shared their perspectives and expertise on how to transform cities into more efficient, equitable and responsive communities.

Over 100 startups, influential investors, entrepreneurs, thought leaders and policymakers came together to discuss how emerging technologies can solve issues in areas such as energy consumption, mobility, sustainable building, and governance and public safety.

Companies offering platforms to make government “smarter” introduced services like SmartProcure, which allows users to find out what other government agencies paid for contracts by connecting thousands of local, state and federal agencies. MuniRent displayed a platform that makes it easy for public agencies to share heavy-duty equipment internally and with other agencies. NextRequest, a public records management platform, offers cities the ability to coordinate between multiple staff members across departments to quickly fulfill requests.

DSC_0026Participants write down topics for unconference sessions at Smart City Startups 2015 (Photo: Tim Mudd)

In the area of transport and mobility, “rideables” such as Future Motion’s Onewheel demonstrated how citizens might get around cities in the future via an easily storable one wheel skateboard. TransitMix promises better transit planning by allowing planners to sketch routes rapidly and see live cost calculations.

No doubt that these ideas are fascinating and creative, but many participants wondered if the speed of startup solutions outpaces government’s willingness or capacity to acquire them. Cities across the country have proven that it isn’t a matter of willingness – municipal administrations in Boston, Louisville, Chicago, among others have institutionalized cutting edge practices, embedding innovation in their operations. But what both big and small cities need is more than new and cool. They need a real-world understanding of the practical application of these products and their value to communities.

Bridging the Divide

Creativity can solve the needs of cities. Startups around the country are hard at work to find solutions in an environment of rising costs of services, urgent infrastructure needs, employee obligations and state and federal funding cuts.

Moving toward a place where start-up ambitions match local policy decisions requires more forums like Smart City Startups, which generate the dialogue between entrepreneurs and cities that will bring creative ideas to life.

Through our work to help city leaders build better communities, NLC is dedicated to fostering creativity and connecting promising solutions with the communities that need them. If you’re a startup with a solution or a city in need of one – reach out to us.

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 8.58.14 AMAbout the author: Tim Mudd is the Senior Associate for Strategic Communications at the National League of Cities. Contact Tim at mudd@nlc.org.