Ride Along Receiving US Ignite Award

As cities around the world rapidly urbanize, they will need to be more connected, more efficient, and “smarter” than ever before. And last month in San Francisco, City Innovate presented the US Ignite Awards at Bridge Summit Conference, celebrating some of the startups that are making that a reality.

The competition was held on the first day of the conference on Startups Day, which featured Demo Day for Startup in Residence. Demo Day featured 14 of the 17 startups from around the world that worked with government partners such as Houston, San Francisco, Washington DC, and Miami-Dade County.

These innovations — from a company that uses ‘internet of things’ technology to monitor public trash cans to a GIS mapping service for analyzing local resident demands — were presented and total of $10,000 were awarded for projects aiming to bridge together public and private sector solutions to municipal challenges.

The five winners of this competition — Nordsense, Gruntify, ZenCity, Conversation.one, and RideAlong — all fused public policy and cutting edge innovation in new and creative ways. US Ignite judged the projects along three categories: impact, implementation, and innovation, according to Will Barkis, Technical Advisor at City Innovate and Volunteer Technical Advisor at the City of San Francisco’s Office of Civic Innovation, who served as a judge on the panel.   

The winning startups ranged from innovative chatbots (Conversation.one) aimed at improving information resources at the San Francisco International Airport to platforms developing better tracking mechanisms for individuals experiencing homelessness (RideAlong) to an app that’s helping the Metropolitan Transport Commission with real-time response to car accidents (Gruntify).

One of these winners, Nordsense, employs smart city technology to tackle a problem that plagues cities the world over, from New York City to Delhi, India: trash.

According to the World Bank, the world produces about 3.5 million tons of trash each day. What doesn’t end up either in towering landfills or ocean garbage patches twice the size of Texas often litters the streets of our cities, overflowing municipal trash cans and spilling onto our sidewalks.

Nordsense used smart city technology, such as small sensors on public trash bins that connect to a centralized municipal system, to address this problem head on.

“Right now, the only way the city knows [that a trash bin is overflowing] is when someone calls 3-1-1,” Barkis said. Nordsense, on the other hand, employs ‘internet of things’ technology to allow governments to “better understand and report back, in order to do something more intelligently about the state of the trash cans.”

Another winner, ZenCity, takes on the challenge of helping cities listen — really listen — to their constituents, through the use of artificial intelligence (AI) technology.

ZenCity taps into everything from social media feeds in a given municipal region to municipal hotlines. The application then aggregates data into a GIS-enabled map that analyzes emerging trends in real-time, allowing cities to more quickly respond to the needs and demands of the people who live there. The startup has gone truly global, expanding beyond the US to various cities in Israel and Europe.

“All of these services we do in a city — from transportation and mobility to public safety to waste,” Barkis said, “can all be enabled by these tech layers.”

“This is important because developing useful technology to solve meaningful challenges is difficult and these two initiatives complement each other to do just that: create meaningful uses of technology to help our communities work better,” he added.


Why the Conference Was So Important

To Barkis, the BridgeSF event and the US Ignite Awards showcased the potential — and the need — for cross-sector collaboration, as cities are increasingly held to higher standards of efficiency for service delivery.

“Maybe the biggest single driver of the ‘smart cities movement’ is the expectation people have now of a high-quality customer experience,” Barkis said. “I think people are demanding a new level of experience and it’s not just from private companies. We’re expecting the government to change, too.”

City Innovate partnered with US Ignite in February 2018 as a Smart Gigabit Community aimed at building the foundation for smart communities across the country. City Innovate represents the San Francisco Bay Area through its Startup in Residence program, giving startups the opportunity to address municipal challenges in a new way.  

Organizations like City Innovate with its STIR program, Barkis said, are at the forefront of this emergent movement.

“STIR has proven to be a high impact model for civic innovation,” Barkis said. “STIR surfaces real challenges faced by city departments, gets buy-in from appropriate internal stakeholders, solves some of the procurement challenges by aligning its application process with the requirements for city Request for Proposals, and finally brings together startups with internal champions within City Hall to collaborate and solve those stated challenges.”

“US Ignite is trying to create real, meaningful impact in a diverse set of communities across the country — not just big, tech-forward cities — that is enabled by advanced information and communication technologies,” he added “San Francisco joined the US Ignite Smart Gigabit Communities program in January and our focus has been to align Startup in Residence with the US Ignite Initiative — we think both will benefit from the collaboration.

City Innovate will continue to update readers on the promise of broad-sector collaboration in cities of all types, as we aim to make cities smarter, safer, and, ultimately, better places to live.