Smart City Startups connects tech, policy and business innovators

Communities / Article

Aimee Rawlins (left), startup and innovation editor at CNNMoney, moderated a discussion with Anand Shah of BMW Impact Ventures, Kyle Doerksen of Future Motion, Tiffany Chu of Transitmix, Sabrina Sussman of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America), and Chris Thomas, founder and partner at Fontinalis, on how to best disrupt models of mobility with technology. Photo by Preston Tesvich.

The 2015 Smart City Startups festival brought more than 100 leading global innovators with ideas to make cities better into conversation with South Florida residents, city leaders and investors last week. Founders of companies that use technology to lead change across the globe spoke at The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse and took part in a showcase at the Wynwood Warehouse Project in Miami April 23-24.

This is the second year that startup solutions to urban problems were broadcast via live stream from Miami. The two-day event featured lightning talks by company founders, demos from 100 leading startups, and conversations about what it takes to disrupt and innovate in communities across the globe.

Smart City Startups was launched by Miami-based investment fund managers at Urban.Us and is supported by Knight Foundation. Shaun Abrahamson, founder of Urban.Us, said the event operates on the belief that startups offer solutions to issues in mobility, sustainable building, services and governance and that technology inspires innovation in policy and business.

“Two years ago there was no such place for startups that help to fix cities,” said Abrahamson, an early-stage investor and entrepreneur.  “What we’ve been able to introduce with the support of Knight Foundation is an opportunity to get some of the most relevant startups to talk about solving Miami-specific problems.”

Prior to talks with investors that took place Thursday, startups pitched their solutions to city problems. Many of these pitches involved a call to action for decision-makers at the local and national level.

Sandra Richter, co-founder and CEO of Soofa, said that when it comes to getting the government to adopt Internet of things technologies and develop an infrastructure across the U.S. that supports data hot spots, it’s important for technologists and policymakers to collaborate.

“We went to a government official, we said we have 100 units and asked, ‘Do you want them now or never’?” Richter said, in reference to Soofa’s technology, which has the power to turn public benches into charging stations for mobile devices. “Never take the rules for granted. At Smart City Startups, we need to talk more about how innovation can come into government and bring that conversation to everybody in a more comprehensible way.”

Aimee Rawlins, startup and innovation editor at CNNMoney, moderated a discussion  between investors and startups on how to best disrupt location and use mobility tech to reshape our cities. Panelist Sabrina Sussman of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America said there has to be a conscious shift in priorities.

“We’re innovating so much faster than regulators will ever be able to change policy,” Sussman said. “We need to ensure that lawmakers and policymakers understand the ramifications of choices coming down the pipeline and find a balance between inviting a tech-friendly startup focus and maintaining strict factions that make it safe and successful.”

Keynote speaker Ramez Naam, a computer scientist, award-winning author and Microsoft veteran, raised startup conversations to a more global level in a presentation on the “critical” issues facing communities across the globe. He says the top questions technologists and communities should be solving are boosting social mobility, reducing the cost of living and outracing automation that destroys jobs.

“The greatest solutions of our future will come from people with ideas like the ones that we’re hearing from today in this room,” Naam said. “Wherever there is crisis there is also the greatest opportunity.”

Matt Haggman, Miami program director at Knight Foundation, spoke to startup founders and investors during the event about the importance of fostering a Miami community that values its problem-solvers. He said these efforts are essential to attracting and retaining talent in the cit.

“These are the early days of innovation in our city,” Haggman said, “and at Knight Foundation, our hope is that anyone who has an idea has the ability to do it in this city, and, in doing that, it’s important to think about the challenges that confront us today and begin to understand that it’s the entrepreneurs who are going to address those problems.”

For more information, visit smartcitystartups.com.

Jenna Buehler is a Miami-based freelance writer.