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Accelerating smart cities – why should startups and government cooperate more?


Review on one key session @Smart City World Expo Trade

Being a young entrepreneur with almost 5 years experience in the field of smart and sustainable cities, visiting Smart City Expo World Congress was like going to Disneyland.

As part of “The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom” (Western Balkan) delegation, I had the opportunity to gain more industry knowledge and first hand insight into the field which is very crucial to my everyday job, but also relevant to my further growth as a smart city expert.

Smart City Expo - Kristina Nikolic

Photo credit: FNF Western Balkan

I came to the Smart City Expo looking for answers on how organisations and individuals are finding new ways to enhance the smartness of public places in urban areas. Being aware that worldwide cities are facing the challenges that require smart and local solutions with international knowledge and resources, I was mainly focused on conference content related to innovations, and urban development technologies. I was keen to learn more about new ways on how startups are pushing forward and disrupting the smart cities industry with innovative solutions and services that are redesigning the experience of living in urban areas while enhancing the wellbeing of citizens.

A panel that immediately got my attention was “How startups are innovating cities” and the first panelist was Beatrice Couture, general manager of InnoCité MTL, a smart city accelerator based in Montreal, Canada.

Beatrice opened her talk with a short introduction of InnoCité MTL and their mission to bring together startups and cities. The main activities are based around intensive 12 week acceleration programmes and mentor schemes formed around key players who are working with startups on their creation of value proposition, go to market strategies and scalability. Being a co-founder of a startup, these exact benefits won my attention:

- City mentors can easily provide grounds for testing and giving feedback upon their early stage ideas, but also offer lessons about how to sell to cities and what kind of a sales cycle to expect for their innovative urban solutions.

- Entrepreneurs as mentors are always a great source of first-hand knowledge based on their previous experience in the industry. To know and absorb stories from someone who has already been in your shoes is an invaluable asset for any startup.

- Corporate executives can provide industry relevant insight, while there is always a possibility of converting them into potential clients or strategic partners who can help in moving to the next level and scaling the idea into a successful business story.

Smart City Expo 2015: Presentations by Beatrice Couture, Simon Sylvester - Chaudhuri, Nick Searle, Bianca Dragomir, Aldo De Jong

According to her words, last but not the least special thing about this acceleration program is the chance of doing tests for your solution and having a real proof of concept. Bearing in mind how reputation is essential for working with city officials and public administration workers, by working closely with cities startups are gaining credibility. As an answer to the main question of how startups are improving lives in cities, Beatrice had three observations on how startups are innovating cities:

1. Iterations and testing as key factors of success - no matter what problem you are solving and which industry you are addressing, you need to be iterative to survive. This means that, unlike big companies, startups don’t wait for the final version of the solution, but boldly enter new markets, gain quick feedback, test and adjust, while constantly implementing improvements. This can serve to city officials as well: constant feedback can help them better understand citizens and their needs.

2. Accessibility and simplicity of their product - all citywide solutions made by startups need to have seamless user experience with simple and straightforward interfaces. By creating easily accessible and practical urban tech solutions for a wide number of users with different IT literacy and knowledge background, startups are improving quality of lives in urban areas for millions of people daily.

3. Startups are all about sharing - Solving big problems in cities often requires involving of many players. So startups are in the position of bringing all of them together and using technologies to leverage some issues and present data-driven solutions.

What Beatrice pointed out next were practical ways cities can benefit from these well-known truths behind startup way of doing things. While addressing her words to city authorities, she came to a conclusion that a solution can be found in two words - communicate and collaborate.

By communicating, she meant on expressing and openly discussing the challenges cities are facing on a regular basis. Collaboration should be based on mutual trust and respect. Thus, her first piece of advice was to start with a small project, pilot and then develop the whole project in full capacity after demonstrating impact.

Photo credit: FNF Western Balkan

Photo credit: FNF Western Balkan

In addition, conferences like Smart City Expo could be a basket full of benefits: they are chances to openly talk and share problems, as there is a big possibility that other cities are facing the same problems, some cities have likely even solved the problems.

As someone who has been working in urban tech solutions for the last five years and truly supports a bottom-up approach, I cannot agree more with Beatrice when we speak about collaboration between cities and startups in terms of mutual trust, the need to openly share challenges cities face, as well as inside data and information in order to build amazing solutions that can eventually lead us towards a better future.

To be continued...


Kristina Jazinka Nikolić

Author of the blog post:
Kristina Jazinka Nikolić

Kristina is Head of Marketing at Strawberry energy. Her drive is turning creative tech ideas into business ventures. Her passion is empowering young women to be entrepreneurs and leaders, by leading Serbia’s LeanIn Circle. As a mentor and adviser to various ICT startups in the field of marketing, communication and product development, she has for more than 5 years impacted Serbia’s young tech startup cluster.

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