NYC-based startup Stae is looking to make data processing and usage the main spearhead in the drive to improve the way cities function.
The future of humanity is going to be played out in cities. For the first time in 2014, the number of city-dwellers worldwide overtook the population living in the countryside. As a comparison, in 1960 only 34% of the world’s population lived in towns. This trend is likely to continue and meanwhile there could be 5 billion people on the planet by 2030.
This phenomenon will entail the construction of gigantic super-cities, especially in developing countries, of a size never seen before in human history. With 38 million inhabitants, Tokyo is today the world’s most populous city, with Jakarta, at over 30 million, hot on its heels. By 2050, Lagos, Kinshasa, Dhaka and Delhi will all have passed the 32 million resident mark, while Mumbai is expected to become the most highly populated city on the planet – and in the history of humanity – with 42 million citizens.
These huge figures pose a wide array of challenges for the local authorities. They are confronted by an increasingly vast, complex environment where policymaking, transport, health, education, housing and culture and entertainment need to be redesigned in keeping with these new spaces. At the same time the new information and communication technologies are enabling a wide range of radical changes that can help address these issues. At the moment however, more solutions are coming from private initiatives than from local government.
John Edgar, a young prolific entrepreneur who is deeply committed to solving urban issues, has set up Stae, a tech startup dedicated to helping the local authorities build the city of the future. The basic aim is to provide a platform on which local authorities and startups can work together, and which will also give local government the means of taking back control of the city data.
Cities not using the vast amounts of available data
Cities are growing in size, and they are also increasingly connected. The Internet of Things is booming, and the Smart City market is set to hit $1.4 trillion in 2020. Internet-connected objects generate huge amounts of data, the vast majority of which is currently not being used by local governments, firstly because very often local authorities do not even have access to the data; and secondly because if they do there is no connector enabling links between different data sources which would make it possible for cities to exploit them efficiently.
It is therefore often the case that in the area in which they specialise, tech startups have a better overall view of city issues than local government officials. Uber and Lyft know more about transportation needs and Airbnb more about tourism trends than City Hall in the towns where these firms operate. Nowadays water, gas and electricity suppliers have installed sensors capable of gathering large volumes of data that provide highly useful information on the consumption patterns of local residents.
This trend is set to accelerate as an increasing number of firms start generating this type of data. The advent of the self-driving car will, not far down the road, enable Google, Tesla and any other firm that forges ahead in this field to garner vital information on traffic flows in urban areas.
Local authorities struggling to move into the digital era
John Edgar wants his fledgling company Stae to enable local authorities to take control of their ‘smart city’ issues, and to benefit from the large amounts of data generated. He explains: “Nowadays cities are facing three major difficulties. They are having to manage on lower budgets and are unable to generate revenue themselves. In addition, they lack specialists in the new technologies and are therefore incapable of taking a proactive approach to startups. This is especially true for small cities. So when a company signs a contract with the local authorities, they often don’t think about asking for a data sharing agreement as part of the deal. Last but not least, cities don’t have communications departments suited to the modern era. As a citizen if I want to communicate with my local authority I have to call 311 to get the switchboard. I can’t, for example snap a photo to point up a problem and send it by SMS. If Airbnb wants to share its data with City Hall, it has to send a PDF file by post to the town hall every single time…”
Connecting up data to optimise its use
This observation was what prompted John Edgar to launch his startup, with the basic aim of helping local government to take control of Smart City issues. Stae offers three types of services.
Firstly, the company will help City Hall to implement legislation governing data sharing, so that when a contract is signed with a tech startup, local government will be able to benefit from the data gathered by the firm.
Stae has also built a platform designed to enable local authorities to communicate and interact smoothly with tech sector players. Airbnb could for example use the platform to pay the tourist tax on each night’s stay, as hotels do, without having to send a separate cheque to the authorities each time.
Thirdly, Stae compiles data and makes it intelligible to local government. “We connect up the data so that anyone and everyone can use it to build an app,” explains John Edgar. The possibilities are infinite: in the transportation field, one could imagine an app enabling people to buy bus tickets which also include the price of a journey using Lyft or Uber to go ‘the last mile’ of the ride, and so on.
Meanwhile, as far as water and electricity consumption are concerned, local governments can, as the city of Cary, North Carolina already does, work with such firms as data processing specialist SAS so as to get a grasp on the residents’ consumption patterns, take fast action to repair water leaks and so on. In this way, Cary has been serving as a beta tester for SAS while in return benefiting from its services. So if the cities of tomorrow are to merit the ‘smart city’ label, much will depend on their ability to create ‘joined-up’ service provision and build an optimal, consistent ecosystem underpinned by information flows.