Berlin’s silent urban tech revolution
For the first time we identified 100+ urban tech start-ups in the capital and the possible impact they have on cities
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What made us search for urban tech start-ups?
Berlin is the city of start-ups. We all know that. The Berlin Start-Up Map counts around 3,700+ companies in their database operating in the most diverse markets in the city already.
Since we have been working in the field of urban tech a while now, a field we believe has not been as much explored in detail as others (such as Prop-Tech, Industry 4.0…), we started our research for companies in Berlin, that do not only operate in the city but were also founded here. Together we partnered with Dealroom and the Senate Department for Economics, Energy and Public Enterprises which are the owners of the Start-Up Map. The research project itself is part of the cooperation with CityLAB Berlin with which we identify start-ups and assess them.
Furthermore we strongly believe that there is no way of deep understanding smart cities without getting the full picture of start-up innovation in the urban space.
We only then realized the real scale of bottom-up urban tech industry. More than 100 teams (we don't claim to have mapped them all yet!) are working now on the innovation directly impacting urban life. Start-ups, thanks to their focus, can move fast and the tech they are working on always bears a possibility of an exponential impact on the current system. We cannot ignore this in the discussion on future-proofing our cities in many fields such as mobility, energy or water management.
Also, in terms of deciding who to include, we were certain that our research focus should remain on start-ups, though we are fully aware that there are more amazing people working towards urban tech solutions in NGO’s, city projects and many others.
Introducing the categories of our landscape
To maintain our growing database we decided on categorizing the start-ups by operational field. Though some cut across categories (e.g. Automotive IoT), they still serve a purpose in their work which we then used to pair with one of our urban-tech categories. Tech solutions usually have many use cases and categorizing them is always a bit arbitrary - Urban Tech Enabling IoT can very much overlap with Industry 4.0 or Infrastructure with Prop-tech. Knowing this we tried to look for the very clear urban focus of a given technology or its direct influence on some of the urban systems.
Mobility — especially Shared Mobility — is a constantly growing field and definitely one of the most popular areas in which start-ups operate in the city (just think of the most recent ‘scooter wars’). We won’t go into too much detail about shared mobility, only to mention that it is surprising that not many operating shared mobility start-ups were actually not founded here.
Electric and Autonomous (driving) Vehicles are our future, we also touched that topic last year with Anthony Townsend. No wonder start-ups work on improving the vehicles in our cities to make traffic safer through hard- and software.
Besides technologies for autonomous and electric vehicles we identified start-ups that specialise on City Logistics, an aspect which might not come straight to mind when thinking of mobility. But not only managing fleets in cities, also the management of parking zones, facilities to charge electric vehicles and especially freight — are topics, these start-ups touch.
Public Transport is the most essential form of mobility for cities (at least in Europe) and therefore important for urban-tech too. The start-ups coming up with innovation in this field focus on electrifying it, developing software for vehicles and apps to improve mixed mobility approaches.
Livability definitely has a strong focus on one main aspect: making citizens' lives better. This can be achieved by connecting neighborhoods, influencing consumption behavior or improving air quality and safety of cities. Livability exists in various scales, for different groups of people and markets. Still, it is worth mentioning that all of these services have a strong urban focus, tackling issues such as housing, connecting neighborhoods or public safety.
Especially neighborhood networks have become more and more popular, where people in Berlin organize themselves. Recently the citizens of Pankow started to discuss about so-called #Kiezblocks for bike-friendly neighborhoods — the coordination through these networks was and is still highly effective to spread information and connect with like-minded people.
To define these two terms we were looking at the user perspective. For us, Gov-Tech is technology that serves government as user through digitalization, simplification of participation processes or any other part of governance. Civic-Tech, on the other hand, serves the citizen as a user.
Many companies in the field try to bridge the gap of lacking communication between (local) governments and citizens by providing software or online tools to gather information and increase participation.
Others focus on city planning processes and support the government with internal tools for digitalization of data.
Enabling Urban Tech IoT
Implementing IoT into urban environments is part of the development of smart cities but can happen in different urban fields such as mobility, infrastructure or citizen services which is why many of the identified start-ups could be considered as crossing categories. This is why we decided on calling this part of urban tech Enabling Urban Tech IoT. Gateways, platforms, and databases are crucial for cities that want to call themselves smart. Also the variety of products a single company in this field offers shows, how many possibilities are out there for the city to make good use of these technologies.
Infrastructure and Utilities
Our biggest category is Infrastructure and Utilities and its subcategories probably couldn’t be more diverse either. Infrastructure itself can be hard or soft, built or as a service. So the companies listed in the categories Energy and Waste serve the purpose of service and management, whilst the start-ups in Buildings help the maintenance and service of hard infrastructure.
Waste recycling and reduction — no matter what type — is essential in our times and cities, as the areas in the world with the highest density and therefore the highest production of waste, know that. These start-ups that come up with solutions might not have great software, algorithms or be super geeky, still, their strategy and ideas are driving the cities in terms of future-proofing them by making them sustainable.
Energy is — we called it — the category in which we identified the most start-ups in urban-tech. The variety of solutions couldn’t be more diverse with solutions of smart water tanks to battery-sharing which links to mobility, solar energy or even a software to survey energy infrastructure. Bringing solutions like these into the city can help to reduce energy usage, make the city more energy-efficient and help to support electric vehicles which for example operate in fleets.
Buildings could be mistaken for us taking an approach on prop-tech, which we will definitely do not, given the Real Estate industry focus that it has. For us urban-tech in buildings is all about sensors and software in buildings and built infrastructure, not the “smart building” process itself. These technologies can help with maintaining this part of urban infrastructure.
Urban Farming however really stands out as one of the utilities that might not straight away come into our minds when we think about urban-tech. Still, urban farming doesn’t mean digging in the ground anymore, it’s all about vertical farming, sensors, machine learning, and algorithms in order to grow herbs and vegetables efficiently anywhere. Many have realized the huge potential that is unfolding, which is why this sector in our eyes will be steadily growing and becoming more and more popular.
Why urban tech drives Berlin — real opportunities for the city
Looking at the various start-ups in all five fields it quickly becomes clear that urban tech startups and their innovation can have a real impact on the city, some of them already do, that’s for sure. Still, we believe that bigger impact on cities can be only achieved with the city knowing about their potentials, partnering with them and therefore grant better implementation into the system. As an example, the city of Berlin published an Urban Development Concept (StEK) which outlines seven goals to reach by 2030. By comparing these to the start-ups and their focus it becomes clear, that urban tech really can help the city to become smart.
Still there is a lot left which we didn’t touch in our landscape intro so far but which will be focused on in our follow up work during the upcoming weeks. We want to know how much value these start-ups create for the cities through their employment and investment that flows into it as much as we want to go into more detail about the city’s strategy and the start-ups that could help to reach these goals.
These are just a few learnings from our research, we are more than excited to go into further detail about this on the 4th of March, where we will present and analyze the landscape in the CityLAB Berlin. For event details follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Also feel free to reach out to us, if you have ideas or questions.