How technology is changing the face of our cities for the better


City planners are in a bit of a quandary about the future, but tech innovations are set to come to the rescue. With more and more people moving into metropolitan areas the need to think smart is going to be essential in the future to stop our cities grinding to a halt. And, as usual, it’s not politicians but budding entrepreneurs who appear to have many of the answers. 

Urban-X is one such pioneering initiative from Urban.Us and Mini. Urban.Us is a venture fund business that aims to tackle the issues facing cityscapes head-on, so it’s a perfect fit with Mini and its compact city car outlook.

The collaboration delivers what is, in essence, an accelerator for tech start-ups that can help fast track a business from ‘idea to impact in just 20 weeks’. Within this innovative network there are already 50+ startups that reach over 100 global cities. Added to that, there’s a plentiful supply of over 2,000 business mentors.

Launching social startups

Under the Urban-X umbrella there are sectors that cover the likes of food, waste and water, energy and the grid plus transportation and mobility. And, although it’s a Mini initiative, it’s not just about cars either; Urban-X has also selected startups that fall under the environment, real estate, infrastructure and categories too, not to forget public health and safety. In fact, Urban-X will consider anything as long as it aims to solve an issue in the urban environment and can fit nicely inside its Cohort program.

Every six months the Urban-X team selects up to 10 startups to form the next Cohort. These are picked from an initial pile of 500 or so online applicants, and the organization subsequently invests $100,000 per company. While the cash injection is hugely important, startups are also offered support in the form of 20 immersive weeks of customer development, product development, network-building and guidance from lots of very well-connected people. It’s seen as the next step to prepare them for fundraising. 

Urban-X Cohort meeting

The Urban-X Cohort program identifies tech startups with ideas to solve social problems, and gives them the funding and support to get off the ground

Central to this is the A/D/O open space, which is situated in a low-rise, hip and happening part of Brooklyn. It’s a great little place for the start-up brigade, with working areas that include lots of equipment for creating mock-ups and prototypes. There are in-house experts who can help with everything from mechanical and electrical engineering through to user experience, graphic design, product design and software development. Perhaps best of all though is that it contains lots of other like-minded people.

The venue is also home to the Urban-X Demo Day, which has just enjoyed its fourth outing. The event is an important one for the selected startups, because they get to spend five minutes or so pitching in front of the media and, more importantly, potential investors. On show at the latest day were seven startups who were all aiming to improve the urban landscape. 

Safety, energy, transport

The ideas were certainly a mixed bag, with everything from Clearroad, which aims to correct a $100 billion deficit in America’s huge road infrastructure with a cool micro tolling system through to Park & Diamond -  a team of guys who have developed a foldable cycle helmet that can roll up into the shape of a water bottle.

“92% of cycling commuters are not wearing a helmet as they commute everyday, making the helmet the single most underutilized safety technology,” said Jordan Klein, the CEO and co-founder of Park & Diamond during his pitch. 

Park & Diamond folding bike helmet

Park & Diamond's folding bike helmet is intended to encourage more cyclists to wear protective gear when riding in cities

Three years ago three years ago co-founder David Hall and his family were struck by tragedy after his sister was the victim of a hit-and-run incident while riding through the intersection of Park and Diamond in Philadelphia. But, out of that particularly dark episode came the foldable helmet.

“In our first 24 hours of the product being live we did over $160,000 in revenue,” says Klein during his presentation. The idea has clearly stuck a chord with the public.

Park & Diamond’s idea is one of those things that leaves you wondering why nobody has done it before. While it’s as safe as a traditional helmet the baseball style design looks better than your average cycle lid and features innovative materials and a clever construction to facilitate the flatpack capability. Little wonder that one of the Park & Diamond team has come from Elon Musk’s SpaceX aerospace company. 

Granted, not all of the ideas are quite as instantly inspirational, but it’s easy to see their potential for both saving money and making it too. Indeed, some of the more sober ideas at the Urban-X gathering solve genuine inner city issues, and could potentially improve the lot for urban dwellers right around the globe.

Take Sapient Industries, for example, which has created an autonomous energy management system that can save cities millions per month. Sam Parks, its founder, highlighted how the business was successfully tackling wasted energy in buildings using smart outlets and energy management systems. 

Tomorrow's challenges

It’s easy to see why the TV show Dragons' Den has become so popular; it’s a great way to see new innovations come to fruition and secure the all-important funding they need to get to the next stage. While Urban-X Managing Director, Micah Kotch is quick to point out that their mission isn’t producing an entertainment show there are distinct similarities. And, at a behind-the-scenes event before the Demo Day, he admitted that a show like Shark Tank, the US equivalent of Dragon’s Den, has been great in capturing the imagination of budding entrepreneurs.

“I'm incredibly proud to announce today that all seven of our teams in the last program have gone on to raise their next round of capital and that really is the true measure of success,” said Kotch the next morning before handing the stage over to the next seven in round four.

A/D/O workspace

Startups can manufacture prototypes at the A/D/O workspace

“To address the challenges that we face today and certainly the major challenges that we will face tomorrow we'll need partnerships between the public and the private sector. That is really why we created Urban-X. We need heroes and we believe that entrepreneurs, designers, engineers and creatives are really the heroes that the 21st century needs the most.”

So, if you’ve got a great tech idea that can directly improve the urban landscape, or just want to nominate someone else, then head over to the Urban-X application form. After all, you’ve got to be in it to win it, right? The launch of Cohort number five is December 5.

Rob Clymo

Rob Clymo has been a tech journalist for more years than he can actually remember, having started out in the wacky world of print magazines before discovering the power of the internet. Since he's been all-digital he has run the Innovation channel during a few years at Microsoft as well as turning out regular news, reviews, features and other content for the likes of TechRadar, TechRadar Pro, Tom's Guide, Fit&Well, Gizmodo, Shortlist, Automotive Interiors World, Automotive Testing Technology International, Future of Transportation and Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology International. In the rare moments he's not working he's usually out and about on one of numerous e-bikes in his collection.