Sustainability and the City

10/09/2012 10:45 BST | Updated 07/11/2012 10:12 GMT

Can technology innovations really support greener living in our cities? Could technology ideas from young start-up firms be one of the drivers for progress in this field? An accelerator event in London open to early stage technology firms will soon put these ambitious ideas to a very practical test.

For many people, cities and sustainability simply don't go together. However, some researchers now think our biggest cities have some of the answers to sustainability challenges. A report published in March by US think tank SustainAbility Citystates: How cities are vital to the future of sustainability suggests that cities will even become the focal point for sustainable development.

The thinking is that, as cities grow, they become more productive and achieve economies of scale. Since city dwellers form the majority of the world's population, global cities now serve as its primary organisational hubs. And as cities become more networked - digitally, economically and socially - citizens' interactions are intensified, leading to a better-developed infrastructure and an increase in system speed and efficiency.

IBM has sought to address these challenges practically. The company's Smarter Cities Start Summits will see stakeholders from many disciplines debate approaches to more sustainable living. The UK conference will examine five different cities' challenges and create an action plan for them.

To support the local innovation aspects of the Smarter Cities agenda as well as encourage technology start-ups, IBM is running IBM SmartCamps around the world, an annual technology accelerator programme for early stage firms.

This year, IBM has added a special KickStart event in London on October 5 aimed at UK technology start-ups interested in making innovations that will help build more intelligent local infrastructures and communications systems, helping deliver more sustainable life choices.

At the KickStart, entrepreneurs put their business model forward for scrutiny by technology experts, venture capitalists and IBM technology leaders. Winning entrants are then nurtured through the IBM Global Entrepreneur initiative - accessing global networking circles and technology resources and potentially, gaining access to next stage funding as well.

The programme's clear focus on commercial viability and sustainability is not without it challenges for the entrants. 2010 London winner Worldsensing - which built a software application that helps motorists park more effectively - found the experience life-changing. The company's chief technology officer Mischa Dohler says: "We learned a lot and we revolutionised our business. The application process forced us for the first time to focus and to identify who we were, what we wanted, and whom we served.

"Throughout the early application phase, the London finals and the world finals mentoring, we learned to hone in and to drop everything not core to our business, no matter how much we loved it - painful, but rewarding in the long run."

Mischa saw Worldsensing's fortunes transformed. "We received very competent mentoring on all aspects of running an early-stage business; we have learned to pitch - an art on its own; we have learned what investors like to hear and what they don't; and we have been exposed to direct competition on an international level."

Of course, IBM SmartCamp isn't alone in supporting young start-ups - as accelerators like SeedCamp and the Entrepreneur Country Forum show - but these events are focused on addressing sustainability issues over the longer term. They are very practical in their approach too, delivering expert advice and mentoring for start-ups.

Simon Clark, managing partner of Fidelity Growth Partners and a mentor at this year's programme, comments: "IBM SmartCamps differ from many boot camps in that they focus on guiding exciting innovations that change the way we do things while helping deliver commercial opportunities. Many events leave only the feel-good factor of making new connections. Others indulge ideas that are impressive in themselves but ultimately have little obvious business value."

In Simon Clark's view, the most successful entrants demonstrate both practical ideas and real focus in commercialising them: "A previous winner, Profitero delivered an effective, tactically-focused offering for manufacturers that wanted quicker intelligence on competitor pricing. The company didn't dilute its offering by trying to strategically rethink market pricing as a whole. As a result, it delivered a product that was very valuable to customers. This calibre of event helps young technology firms develop innovations that will support more sustainable living while moving them to the next level of growth and profitability."

IBM SmartCamp KickStart London is calling for innovations from the UK's sharpest young companies. Its sponsors believe firmly in sustainable support for these firms' efforts - not just sustainability as a vision.

Entry to IBM SmartCamp KickStart London is open until September 14 at: