At heart, smart cities are data collectors — and therein lies the opportunity for entrepreneurs.Peter Nguyen/Unsplash
Cities are getting smarter all the time: A full 66 percent of U.S. cities have already invested in smart technology. This means they are amassing mountains of data — and are ripe for some good old-fashioned American entrepreneurship.
The United Nations predicts that 60 percent of the global population will live in cities by 2030, and one in three people will live in cities with at least half a million inhabitants. Ensuring these new megacities are livable will require improvements to services such as garbage removal and water supply, enough jobs to accommodate residents and attention to sustainability. That’s the very definition of a smart city — one that uses technology to make a city efficient and sustainable, and creates new jobs as a byproduct.
At their heart, smart cities are data collectors. Tens of thousands of sensors and nodes placed on streetlights, bridges, trash cans and other city infrastructure are linked together through the internet of things (IoT) and collect massive amounts of data. Earlier this year, Boston was named the smartest city in the U.S., based on a mix of 19 factors including WiFi hot spots, clean energy use, education and business ecosystem.
San Diego is building the largest municipal IoT network in the world. The city started in 2014, and now saves $2.5 million annually in energy and maintenance costs. Smart stoplights have already decreased rush hour travel times by as much as 25 percent.
This is just the beginning. As more and more cities smarten up, the amount of data collected will grow exponentially. Most cities make that data available to developers to create apps and software to benefit the city and its residents. And there it is — the opening for entrepreneurs. This unprecedented data collection offers unprecedented opportunity to turn it into something useful, whether it’s in grid technology, mobile apps, sustainability or quality-of-life issues.
Many startups have been quick to jump into city issues, such as waste management and congestion. Austin-based Sensco uses sensor data to detect leaks in the water-supply infrastructure. RoadBotics tracks road conditions and alerts drivers and local government officials to specific types of road issues, such as potholes.
All smart cities use intelligent design to promote three core values — livability, workability and sustainability, which open up even more spaces for creative entrepreneurship. One Concern uses artificial intelligence and data collected from city sensors to predict and respond to disasters, from earthquakes to fires and flooding. Software startup Bixby has an app utilizing cloud-based tools and services to make property management easier for landlords and residents.
Using everything from mobile-phone location signals to data collected from city parks, LotaData specializes in location-based predictive analytics for governments, marketers and developers.
Tech startups are even relocating to smart cities to launch their own products. SafetyCulture, creators of a workplace safety app, last year moved to Kansas City, Missouri, to take advantage of its sensors and IoT capabilities, setting up shop in a repurposed school building. Valor Water Analytics (just purchased by Xylem Inc.) incubated in San Francisco after being developed in North Carolina, and now uses its software and data collected from meters and billing statements to help utilities in 10 states understand water-usage patterns.
And cities that are just starting down the smart-city path are encouraging entrepreneurs by making themselves more attractive. Cleveland last year launched a $25 million initiative to revamp its neighborhoods by leveraging private investment to try to attract tech startups. One company taking advantage of Cleveland’s new smart-city commitment is software startup inTouch. The company develops smartphone apps that utilize smart-city sensors. This year Atlanta launched a smart-cities project to better cope with its fast-growing population. Houston is spending $34 million to smarten its traffic signals, wireless communications and roadside message signs. This year the city joined 21 others, including Austin, Boulder, Pittsburgh and Seattle, to collaborate on using smart technology to address urban transportation issues.
The spaces and opportunities for forward-thinking entrepreneurs are there — all it takes is a bit of smarts to find them.