Tech companies are slowly changing the way we work, communicate, do business and travel, but how do they affect our urban environments?
It seems that tech incubators and accelerators are starting to directly target cities. Companies like Uber, AirBnB and WeWork already impact our daily lives without deliberately targeting urban conditions. We are witnessing a proliferation of apps and digital tools that promise to make our cities ‘smart’ by embedding technology into existing infrastructural networks and living units. Critics are voicing their concerns over the idea of cramming huge amounts of technology into every city intersection and alleyway, stating that the one-solution-fits-all approach practiced by most tech startups is not the best way of creating sustainable, smart urban environments.
Most tech startups are currently affecting urban environments without substantially effecting the most significant urban problems such as affordable housing, education and efficient public transport. It seems this is about to change, thanks to several startup hubs, incubators and accelerators that actively target urban issues by supporting young enterprises focused on urbanism.
Alphabet, a parent company of Google, is looking to get into the field of urbanism by their company, Sidewalk Labs. The think tank partnered with DC-based, policy-making non-profit Transportation For America to implement better transportation policies across the country. The program will help 70 cities to reshape their transportation plans. The team has already launched the Smart Cities Challenge, which called for proposals for new transportation networks. Seven finalists will receive $40 million in total, though other proposals will also be developed in collaboration with the non-profit. The great thing about the initiative is that the solutions will rely on technology only as much as it is actually necessary.
Urban venture accelerator Tumml aims to support startups that address issues related to urban development. By establishing a platform for making a meaningful social impact, the organizers are hoping to help solve urban problems. Tumml was founded by two women who both have backgrounds in real estate, sustainability and local politics. This seems to be the perfect combination for supporting scalable companies and empowering entrepreneurs to make a real change in their cities.
#3 Y Combinator
One of the most famous startup incubators in the United States, Y Combinator, recently unveiled a new program that specifically targeted urbanism. The seed accelerator invests in companies and helps startups further develop their products, teams and markets, as well as refine their business models. Some of the many companies funded by Y Combinator (YC) are Dropbox, AirBnB, Reddit, and Coinbase. Its newest program “New Cities” will focus on the optimization and effectiveness of metropolitan areas, as well as affordable housing, transportation and policy-making. The first phase of this program will be a YC research project, the results of which will be shared with the public.
#4 Impact Engine
Impact Engine recently raised $10 million and went from being an accelerator to a seed fund that supports early-stage, tech-focused businesses in the Chicago area. While its focus is on startups working in different spheres – from health and education to economic empowerment – Impact Engine is also making an impact on urbanism by funding companies that promise to change neighborhoods and urban conditions. Effortless Energy, funded by Impact Engine, acts as a market maker between homeowners, energy auditors, contractors, grant programs, and financiers, while Meal Sharing brings people together over home-cooked meals, and connects communities across Chicago.
Startup accelerator program Urban-X, developed by BMW’s Mini and venture capital outfit HAX, focuses on “intelligent cities, urban hyper-growth and society-scale challenges.” It backs 10 small companies each year and supports startups through legal, marketing, HR, mentorship and accounting assistance. Some of the main issues it aims to address are urban safety, the sharing economy and urban mobility, with a specific focus on startups in New York City. Efficient alternatives to recycling organic waste, developing geo-intelligence, public transportation sharing systems and modular urban farming are some of the most innovative areas the accelerator has supported in the past.
While the jury is still out on the effects of the tech industry’s physical presence in neighborhoods, there are clear indicators that it is showing an increasing interest in urbanism and cities. These examples reveal that the tech industry might become a key player in developing workable solutions tailored to unique situations in urban areas.