Moss + IoT = More liveable cities

Central Station in Berlin. Copyright: Green City Solutions

Think about the future of cities. What springs first to your mind? Self-driven cars? Shareconomy? Intelligent homes? Admit it: You won’t fancy moss to play a vital role in city liveability.

This, however, might be the case in the nearest future.

Imagine a tree absorbing CO2 and NOx emissions, cleaning and cooling the air with an efficiency of 275 urban trees. You’ve read it right: 275 trees in one. We might have reached a similar effect planting a giant sequoia in the middle of New York or London but there’s a more elegant solution called CityTree.

Vegetation in Melbourne

A team from Dresden designed a vertical garden-bed with moss and other plants to revive our urban areas. In October I travelled to Melbourne and was impressed with the amount of vegetation on the skyscrapers walls. The plants filter polluted air and make Melbourne look more like a natural habitat and less a soulless concrete jungle. The idea of CityTree goes a step further to combine plants, sensors and data collection for urban planning.

Green City Solutions, the team behind the project, has recently won EIT Startup Challenge — an annual competition where EIT Digital Accelerator picks up the most promising scaleups to support. As a jury member of the competition, I seized the opportunity to talk to Liang Wu, the CIO of GCS, to learn more about the startup and its plans.

Copyright: Green City Solutions

Liang, how did the story of Green City Solutions begin?

Dénes Honus (CEO) and Victor Splittgerber (CTO) have known each other since high school. Later on, Dénes wrote a thesis on sustainable urban design and Victor — on urban farming. Right before the graduation, Victor urged us to start a project which then naturally developed into Green City Solutions. Peter Sänger (COO) was at that time a master student at the University of Applied Sciences Dresden. His entrepreneurial spirit helped us secure a partnership with the University to work on our first prototype.

Why did you move to Berlin? It’s harder to stand out on this scene unlike Dresden.

We are alumni of the Climate-KIC accelerator, an EIT funded programme located at the EUREF-Campus in Berlin. In 2014, we entered the 2nd stage of the acceleration programme, were runner-up at the national venture competition and participated in numerous events in Berlin. We realised that Berlin offers a substantially better network for cleantechs and have therefor decided to move onto the EUREF-Campus. A variety of different companies and startups focusing on sustainability or cleantech industry are based here.

Despite its social component, GCS is still a business aimed to generate profit. Share a couple of success stories — and the obstacles you had to overcome!

Although urban planning and city liveability are trending topics nowadays, at the beginning it was hard to get city authorities even listen to our idea. While many of them find the approach interesting, we still experience a long procurement phase when it comes to project implementation.

Thus, our first customer actually came from the corporate world. AOK Plus wanted to communicate their social responsibility in Jena. We all had such an elevating feeling the moment our first construction was erected. I can still remember working late into the night to put the finishing touches. Soon after that cities like Oslo followed, proving some countries have a stronger emphasis on urban innovation.

In the past two years we have installed CityTrees in Dresden, Berlin, Jena, Munich and many other cities in Germany. This year we have built our first Asian test CityTree in Hong Kong. Prestigious awards help us to pivot the situation. Customers, including municipalities, started reaching out to us proactively with project propositions.

CityTree in Oslo. Copyright: Green City Solutions, Oslo Photo Tour

Sounds positive! But what keeps the management team up at night?

The major challenge right now is scalability. Cleantech companies often struggle to find a profitable business model and therefore investors to support a rapid expansion. Although every single CityTree cleans the air, we need the cumulative effect of multiple installations to influence the air quality and collect enough sensor data. Additionally, we are developing further products for sustainable urban planning.

Sadly, the governmental bodies are yet reluctant to cooperate with disruptive startups. The authorities concern themselves with hypothetical negative perception from the electorate’s side rather than with issues affecting both the present and the future.

I can totally relate to this statement. For the last 5 years I have been working with the governments. For many of them innovation is still a synonym of uncertainty und ambiguity. Luckily, this attitude is slowly changing. All right, what’s your plan now when you were granted with another award?

EIT Digital has already proven on several occasions that their network, mentoring and expertise is a driving force for startups and ideas. Our next step is to implement a pilot project in Modena with the help of EIT Climate-KIC. Together with an Italian partner, we are planning to install a few CityTrees and gather pollution data for a detailed analysis. The results of this project will help us to persuade even more cities that our bio-filter system tackles air pollution. Apart from that, collected data will pave the way for further product development. Next generations of the CityTrees will be more compact and well-suited for an even wider range of environments. This will trigger more use cases even for private customers. The ultimate goal would be to establish a global network of devices to improve the most valuable substance for every human being — air.

Liang, it all sounds very inspiring! If I were living in Beijing, I would have immediately asked you to launch a crowdfounding campaign and install a few hundred CityTrees in the city. Even here, in Europe, with decent public transportation and a cult of bicycles, there’re still way too many cars and other air pollutants. I always feel a huge relief getting outside of Frankfurt for a gulp of fresh air in the fields.

Now, dear reader, have you already seen a CityTree? If yes, what do you think of this invention? Do you believe than in 5–10 years we might have better air quality thanks to cleantechs? And how could we achieve this? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comment section!

If you found the article interesting, click ♥ or share it so that other readers could enjoy it. Follow my blog to get new articles on urban life, smart cities, mobility and data as soon as they are published.