Building a hub for smart urban tech
Combining digital technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and data analytics, cities are just beginning to explore the potential for “smart cities,” which promise more efficient municipal operations while improving the quality of life. But getting there will require coordination and collaboration across governments, non-profits, businesses, and other local stakeholders.
On this episode of the What’s NEXT podcast, we discussed what makes cities smart, and how to make them smarter. Our guest was Simon Sylvester-Chaudhuri, co-founder and executive director of CIV:LAB and co-founder of Smart Cities New York, a conference that will be held at Pier 36 from May 13 to 15. Simon is also a leader of The Grid, a non-profit startup and network for urban innovation within New York City.
First steps on the road to smart cities
A smart city is more than just the sum of its technology parts. “I see it as a city that creates programs, and implements, and scales technologies for the good of its citizens,” Simon told me.
Simon knows cities, both small and large. He grew up in Manhattan, Kansas, with a population of 50,000. But he went on to study economics in London, which has more than 8 million residents. After his time in the U.K., he returned to Kansas to work with the National Renewable Energy Labs on next-generation energy technologies. Eventually, he found his way to New York City to study and eventually teach at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.
While in New York, Simon and colleagues started the Urban Future Lab. This, he says, prompted him to ask the question: “How can we not only support startups and innovations making cities better, not just through venture capital but through our other resources?”
The answer eventually led to the formation of the Global Futures Group, a consulting group created to advise and consult around the theme of smart cities.
Collaboration enables smart cities
Innovation related to the growth of smart cities is being driven by technologies like 5G, as well as from connections and collaborations that are key factors enabling a smart city future.
For example, organizations as diverse as the World Economic Forum and the Queens County Library are part of The Grid, which raises the question: “How you can galvanize these various communities to work towards a greater good locally?”
Despite the potential for connecting global organizations to community activists, the organization faces some formidable challenges.
“You know, my biggest fear is waking up one day and there is no urban tech sector and there are no entrepreneurs that can find financing,” Simon told me. “We don’t have the benefits of being as horizontal as blockchain or sexy as blockchain.”
Even if there is an obvious appeal to smart cities, this is not a problem that will scale like social networking or ride sharing. The human element is a critical factor.
“One big issue in this space is not just scaling hardware and software but scaling models too,” he says. “And so there’s a model within that which is getting these collaborators to work”
Smart cities startups do not follow your typical B2B or B2C model, because there are so many stakeholders involved.
“We need to find models that we can scale for that so that gives startups more opportunities to work with governments,” Simon said. His advice to startups in this sector, “make sure you’re just engaged with your local community.”
Also, they shouldn’t assume smart cities are a monopoly market for governments. Commercial real estate and developer communities are “effectively building small communities in many cities themselves.” Utilities are another touchpoint for smart cities, he says, “whether it’s on making the grid more energy efficient or … making it more connected to bring in more renewable energy and forces sources of distributed generation utilities are a huge potential customer base.”
In fact, Simon sees the need for “getting creative and not just looking at real estate, utilities, the citizen, our government, but also looking at the private sector as a customer is a big opportunity.”
This is especially important for problems that cross traditional policy and organizational boundaries, such as accessibility and mobility. “Accessibility is a huge one and the reason I also think it’s important to notice accessibility isn’t a vertical this is something that’s horizontal,” he says.
While free markets have produced immense gains for technology innovation, they are not panaceas for all of our social needs. For smart cities, a lot of innovation is also being driven by non-profits.
“Our startup is actually in the form of a non-profit which is a real thing, nonprofit startups. When we do our business model canvas, we’re not necessarily looking for venture capital money, but we’re still looking for resources to help scale our business,” he said.