Urban Tech in Poland — the 3rd wave of smart cities is already here
How we identified 100+ urban tech start-ups from Poland which aim at future-proofing our cities today already.
Smart cities are a fairly well-known concept in Poland. With numerous cities preparing future-proofing strategies, a few established events and active thought leaders, one could say that Poland stays on the forefront of this innovation. Is this really the case? Most smart city initiatives in Poland seem to still orbit around enterprise-level solutions like those provided by large tech corporates. More progressive mayors and innovators work with Open Data in public management too. Still it seems that worldwide smart cities have advanced already to its third wave — urban tech.
What is urban tech?
Urban tech is a relatively new term which has been borrowed from the venture capital industry nomenclature. It refers to technological solutions that improve different aspects of city life and the way cities are organized.
In our understanding of urban tech, we stress a very clear urban focus of a given technology or its direct influence on some of the urban systems.What is important as well, urban tech stands for startup-driven innovation that is scalable to many cities.
The Urban Underdogs — 100+ urban tech startups in Poland
You might not have heard much about urban tech but it doesn’t mean it’s not there. The beauty of bottom-up urban innovation is that it doesn’t wait for politics or academia to unlock them. Urban tech in Poland in fact has been doing quite well for a couple of years already.
At the beginning of 2020 we at Urban Impact mapped the local urban tech ecosystem in Berlin. Despite large resources which are invested into smart cities research and practice in Berlin, it still came as a surprise to many that 100+ city-focused technologies are being currently developed in one city alone.
Ever since we have been curious how the urban tech landscape looked like in Poland, a start-up and tech industry we observe very closely. We followed the same methodology as tested with success in Berlin (bottom-up, multi-source research validated by local experts in the field) and found out that more than 100 urban tech start-ups currently operate in Poland.
Our research project has been developed in close cooperation with Dealroom, renowned provider of startup research and data, EIT InnoEnergy, an EU-initiative focused on sustainable innovation investment and support, as well as Market One Capital, one of the leading European early stage venture funds investing in marketplaces and network effects platforms based in Poland.
One may say, 100+ start-ups is not many, especially when compared to Berlin. However, given that Germany’s capital remains one of the top European tech hubs with tech investment volumes far exceeding that of all Polish cities combined, the number is stunning.
Five fields of urban tech
To present the landscape we grouped Polish urban tech start-ups into five operational categories: Mobility, Infrastructure and Utilities, Gov/Civic Tech, Enabling IoT and Livability. Within these areas we identified top use cases for technologies developed by Polish companies.
As expected, Mobility is the “hottest” topic in Polish urban tech. More than half of the companies we mapped operate in this area, with shared mobility leading the way. From city bikes to e-scooters and ride-sharing — it seems that Polish start-ups stay on top of the latest mobility hype. Traficar and Panek were among the first companies that introduced car-sharing on Polish streets about four years ago and they still remain important players in this segment. Two years later first e-scooters from Lime and other foreign operators appeared on Polish streets, which gave a strong boost for Polish innovators start-ups, to name just a few: Blinkee.city, Hop.city or Hulaj. Public bike-sharing systems in Polish cities are dominated by international operators, however, we have mapped a few interesting bike rental start-ups developing dockless systems, like Roovee.
As the number of possible urban transportation options increases, Mobility as a Service (MaaS) platforms, aggregating numerous mobility services, are emerging. A few start-ups work on MaaS applications that integrate public transport with shared mobility services (see Vooom) or focus on shared mobility options only. At the same time, companies are working on Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) that increase the traffic safety and efficiency of public transport or solutions that make municipal trains and buses more energy-efficient.
The landscape of the urban mobility revolution has to be completed by traffic analytics solutions, like traffic security through AI and sensors (see Neurosoft) and parking space optimization. Good examples of the latter are NaviParking (real-time information about near-by parking spots), Parkalot.io (parking reservation system for corporate clients) or Hellopark (dedicated parking reservations within local communities).
It is also worth mentioning city logistics companies that change the way that goods are stored and delivered within cities. The real last-mile delivery transformation in Poland was started by InPost — the company has deployed over 6.000 parcel lockers throughout the whole country and is now the leader in e-commerce delivery. An interesting smart locker click & collect solution dedicated to workplaces is developed by Collectomate.
Infrastructure & Utilities
Energy, waste and water management solutions are crucial for sustainable urban development. Companies listed in the category infrastructure & utilities provide services for hard and soft city infrastructure. The solutions for the Energy sector mapped in the landscape are focused on energy monitoring and optimization systems that help reduce the cost of energy for end-users (see S-Labs) or support the distribution grid management. A few companies develop smart lighting software (Gradis), e-charging infrastructure (Elocity) and solar-powered city furniture like smart benches, bus shelters and, since recently, hand sanitizers in response to the increased demand for hygiene solutions in public spaces (Seedia).
Among useful waste & water solutions, we can find smart bins and waste management systems (see Bin-e or EcoBins) or leak detection systems. EcoBean is a perfect example of how the circular economy in a modern city might work — the company collects coffee waste from restaurants, cafes or office parks and turns it into clean energy. Other great solutions addressed to environmental awareness raising are developed by Greenbin that allows us to track used plastic bottles within the recycle chain or LitterAct that supports voluntary cleanups.
Technologies that improve the efficiency of buildings have also a huge impact on our cities. We can find here data-driven, energy-efficient building intelligence solutions based on IoT (see Silvair) or building automation systems. For us, use cases in this field are in some way related to prop tech, still the focus is very much on the urban side so only include a small sub-set of prop tech that lead to energy savings on a building and district scale as well as during the construction process.
Enabling urban tech IOT
As city infrastructures get increasingly hooked up to the cloud, IoT technologies gain in importance. For this reason we decided to cluster Internet of Things solutions in a separate category, though they are overlapping with other categories in the landscape, especially in infrastructure and mobility. Companies listed here deliver sensor-based approaches, transmission protocols or cloud solutions dedicated to increase efficiency for utility companies, buildings and public spaces as well as in the field of mobility (see Estimote and Kontakt.io).
Gov Tech & Civic Tech
Gov and Civic Tech solutions mapped in the landscape empower local governments and citizens to provide better public services or engage the public in urban planning and decision-making. These innovations usually happen both bottom-up and top-down, depending on who is initiating the innovation and who is the main user. We also found a few interesting examples of communication tools between governments and citizens (see a Smart City Chatbot by InteliWISE). The current coronavirus lockdown has raised the demand for tools that facilitate on-line city council sessions or public consultations and accelerated the digitalization of public services. We believe that there is no turning back from this and more startups will find exciting opportunities to innovate in Gov and Civic Tech topics in post-pandemic times.
The use cases listed within the Livability category are quite diverse, but there is one thing all these technologies have in common — they make our lives in cities easier, safer and better, having at the same time a strong urban focus. Just think of the air monitoring system from Airly that has significantly contributed to increased public awareness of the quality of air we breathe not just in Poland but increasingly all-over Europe. There are also more and more applications that connect local communities — why not eat dinner together with your neighbours using Zwyczajny Obiad, offer a helping hand to those who need it with Helpio, or store your belongings in your neighbour’s basement (see Kartonado). The list of possible applications has not ended here and we will most probably be witnessing a boost of new cutting-edge ideas that improve our day-to-day live in cities in the close future.
Urban tech — Berlin vs. Poland
With deep dives into two neighbouring urban tech ecosystems — Berlin and Poland — completed, we also had a chance to look for similarities, differences and interesting patterns that emerge when we compared both. We would like to highlight a few of those observations below, with an important caveat that we don’t have definitive answers, rather educated guesses. We would be very curious to hear your opinion on the below assumptions as well!
There is nothing explorative in the statement that Poles and Germans are different when it comes to social life. There are many reasons for this, described extensively by sociologists. What is interesting from our perspective, is the direct consequence it has on the urban tech innovation sector.
While neighbourhood-connecting platforms are an important part of the Berlin landscape, there are very few used in Poland. Polish society is in general more socially distanced and a less ethnically-diverse place than Germany (especially Berlin, as a global melting pot!). Not surprisingly, we see evidence of a relatively low level of social trust in Polish society expressed also in the data that we analysed on urban tech solutions from there.
It seems that things change slowly in corona times and a few bottom-up initiatives have emerged. It remains to be seen if those are to stick around.
Another important social feature directly visible in urban tech lens is the difference between elders in Poland in Germany. While Berlin’s “silver surfers” are more open to technology and smartphones, there are solutions targeted specifically at this group. In Poland we observe significantly less solutions for the elderly society.
We also observe much more granularity in shared mobility in Poland than in Berlin (and the rest of Germany). Many smaller players appeared on the e-scooters map across various Polish cities whereas Germany is still dominated by few but therefore larger companies. The reasons can be numerous, from Polish entrepreneurial spirit to weaknesses of public transport, especially in small and medium-sized cities.
Further exploring the mobility vertical, the difference seems to lie in the lack of more advanced tech being developed in Poland like, e.g. AV applications. This can be partly explained by more difficult funding environment than in Berlin (the development of such solutions is typically more capital intensive) but what is also important, is the immense knowledge of German automotive industry which trickles down to Berlin.
Germany (and Berlin) has an immensely different economical ‘operating system’ than Poland so differences are obviously numerous. The one which is worth mentioning though is the home rental market. We observe far less home rental platforms and apps in Poland than in Germany. In our opinion, this could be explained by drastically higher home ownership rate in Poland in comparison to Germany, where majority of society rent houses entire life.
Another, very interesting signal comes from the sector urban farming. Companies like Berlin based Infarm are winning markets fast whereas in Poland no one seems to experiment within this sector yet. What Berliners might not know, fresh groceries directly from farmers are easily available in even large Polish cities: either from direct deliveries (supported by companies like Lokalny Rolnik) or simply from families living in the countryside who provide the fresh food on a regular basis. This is one, that Berlin can be definitely envious of!
Towards the bottom-up approach to Polish smart cities
All companies mapped in our landscape contribute to the urban transformation that is happening now in Poland and the market potential for solutions they offer is growing.
Urban innovations are no longer reserved for big players — they are built by small companies that want to take matters in their own hands and just ‘make a difference’. As Polish cities seem to be determined to become smart, they should more carefully observe the urban tech movement around them and invite startups to co-create the solutions that address the needs of local communities. Why not start with those from your neighborhood?
Disclaimer: To avoid any conflict of interest we would like to mention that we have an on-going business relationship with Airly, helping them to launch a pilot in Berlin. We are also working with the team from Gradis on their business development.