In London on October 4th IBM will host its ISV Leadership Forum focusing on Smarter Cities, and we are delighted to welcome guest speaker Mischa Dohler, CTO of Worldsensing. Worldsensing, a company which provides a smart parking solution for congested cities, won the London IBM SmartCamp in 2010 and since has made strides in improving city parking operations. In anticipation of the Smarter Cities Leadership Forum as well as the upcoming SmartCamp in London on Oct. 5 the following day, here’s what Mischa has to say about how technology can make our cities smarter.
by Mischa Dohler
Can technology innovations deliver greener city living? Could technology ideas from young startup firms be a driver for progress in this field? A visionary accelerator event in London next month could determine whether both these concepts are realistic, in both creative and commercial terms.
Since the majority of the world’s population is now urban-dwelling, many people think that cities and sustainability don’t mix. However, some researchers suggest that our global cities have some of the answers to sustainability challenges. An example was US think tank SustainAbility’s report called Citystates: How cities are vital to the future of sustainability published in March. The study concluded that, as cities grow, they achieve economies of scale. Citizens’ interactions are streamlined, leading to a better-developed infrastructures and an increase in overall speed and efficiency of different interactions.
So can startup firms make a practical contribution? My company Worldsensing’s FastPrk software is helping people enjoy smarter urban living. The application uses field sensors to notify the driver where best to park, saving drivers’ time and helping city governments and shopping malls boost parking space utilisation.
There are quantifiable benefits for city councils too. In Barcelona, there are about 40,000 municipal parking spots, each chargeable at €2 per hour. We estimate that we would improve usage by an average of three to four minutes per hour, which delivers a total gain to the city hall of €50 million annually.
Could there be wider community benefits? Our separate studies of municipalities in France estimate that 70 million hours are spent each year looking for parking spaces across the country, causing an annual financial loss of €700 million. With smarter parking applications bringing a 20% improvement in search times and parking efficiency, there is a projected €2 million financial boost to a city of one million inhabitants. This rises to €8 million for a city of four million.
However, innovations like these need nurturing and commercial focus, particularly from the big firms that have the scale to engage with governments and city halls to understand their needs and help them design better infrastructures and communications. IBM’s Smarter Cities Start Summit taking place this year specifically targets the goal of more sustainable living for many of our global cities; they will debate the issues and then create action plans to help them achieve it.
To support the technology innovations that will contribute to the smarter cities agenda, the company is running parallel IBM SmartCamps, an annual technology accelerator programme for early-stage firms world-wide. This year, IBM has added a KickStart event in London on October 5 aimed at UK startups interested in building more intelligent local infrastructures for these more sustainable life choices.
Worldsensing was fortunate enough to win the 2010 IBM SmartCamp London and the experience taught us that the best accelerator events, whether they are seeking innovations for ‘greener’ living or boosting the efficiency of existing systems, are constructive by nature but have to have a very strong commercial agenda to help participating startups succeed.
Accelerator events that make a difference will balance exciting concepts with commercial realities: not only do the expert mentors taking part know what they are talking about, but they also focus on whether the startups have a viable idea or a product that customers really want. With one-to-one mentoring, the entrants gain clear feedback and guidance to help the startup firm transform its ideas or fine tune its business model.
This honest approach means accepting that, though many startups are founded by technology people with great ideas, it’s the customers that buy greener products or choose sustainable living. If people don’t want it, you have to change the product or the way it’s sold, whatever effort or capital you’ve invested in it.
Startups sometimes forget the long-term development needed in the business of innovation – and the resources that a global firm can make available for it. At IBM SmartCamp in London, the hard feedback from experts made us reshape our approach for a final pitch (to over 100 mentors, commercial executives and journalists) that was very well received – we won outright. Worldsensing also benefited by maintaining links with IBM technology specialists, company Innovation Centres and its sales people.
With this long-term nurturing we have been able to take our ideas further. In a joint venture with a construction group, Worldsensing is helping analyse data on parking and wider traffic flows into cities. This type of real-time information will increasingly be needed to build smart city operating systems, to ease traffic congestion or reduce chemical and acoustic pollution levels and ultimately, help us make more sustainable life choices in the future.