Startups lead the way in smart city mobility

city landscape of a tram at nighttime
city landscape of a tram at nighttime

Mobility startups typically have the advantage of youth, agility, an interest in new technology, and an eye to creating future-proof transportation and technologies. However, they also face a number of unique barriers. Fortunately, smart cities have created a valuable space for mobility startups to innovate within.

By 2030, sixty percent of the global population will live in urban areas, and one in every three people will live in cities with at least half a million inhabitants. Many cities have spent part of the last decade embarking on ambitious, smart city projects that aim to make cities not only responsive but ‘smart’ and predictive of the needs of their inhabitants. A range of this smart infrastructure has IoT embedded in it, including smart kiosks, parking, transport systems, connected vehicles, weather monitoring, waste control, lighting, and traffic controls. Cities connect their infrastructure to deliver urban services more effectively, save money, and provide a means to engage with citizens, visitors, and local businesses.

Successful cities are typically part of research programs, pilot studies, and funding recipients of bigger Government investments or the investment of big companies such as Cisco, Intel, and various telcos and utilities. But equally critical is the role startups can play in smart city mobility, bringing in new schools of thought, new technology, and new business models.

How cities can facilitate a mobility startup ecosystem

Mobility startups face a number of unique challenges:

  • Their testbeds are typically public spaces.
  • They are dependent on the rules and regulations of their local municipality.
  • They need data traditionally only available to city officials.
  • When it comes to deployment, their primary customer may in fact, be the local government with their own challenges of budgetary restraints, election cycles, and red tape.

Fortunately, smart cities recognize the value of startup and can facilitate their success through a range of strategic actions:


For many companies — both in software and in the creative sector — it is challenging to develop smart city applications and applications because there is a lack of suitable testing environments. Typically, companies require all parties’ consent (municipality, companies, etc.) to create an effective test environment.
An example is by the City of Peachtree Corners, Atlanta, is Curiosity Lab at Peachtree Corners, launched in 2019, one of the first intelligent mobility and smart city living laboratories powered by 5G. The 500-acre technology park is powered by a 5G IoT communications network provided by Sprint and includes partnerships with leading telco and infrastructure companies.

The testbed includes an autonomous vehicle test track, road solar panels, a co-created self-driving electric shuttle, autonomous drones delivering packages, a teleoperated e-scooter, smart light poles, humanoid robots, and a technology incubator. The City owns 100% of the road, sidewalk, and right-of-way and is open to smart city and mobility testing on land and in the air. Tech companies worldwide (both public and in stealth mode)test, demo and deploy new technologies at Curiosity Lab. Access to the technology infrastructure is free, and the test park is a place where 7500 people work and 1000 live.

Open Data

Open data is one of the keys to successful smart city execution. It can help identify and solve civic problems, ensure the accountability of city officials, and create new business opportunities for startups. Data about education, healthcare, transport, and tourism can be a catalyst for new app development, research projects, and targeted local campaigns.

Supporting public-private partnerships

A mobility startup may have a great idea, but struggles to get buy-in from local or federal government or the larger established businesses like existing public transport providers. Fortunately, a savvy city can facilitate the solution.
In Victoria, Australia, CivVic Labs was created in 2015 to bring government and startups together to solve public sector challenges. A three-month challenge-based accelerator helps startups to grow their business and their connections in the government sector. They also have the opportunity to secure an investment of up to $185,000 to develop their idea. This year She’s a Crowd will assist the Department of Transport with crowdsourced spatial data to help planners understand and enhance user safety, mobility, and satisfaction of women and girls using the state’s transport network. Currently, the government department WorkSafe is looking to startups for new ways to improve safety in the gig economy, which employs 7% of Victorians, including food delivery riders and Uber drivers.

Train at the station in Germany
Train at the station in Germany
Deutsche Bahn’s Mindbox incubator provides funding and resources for startups.

In Germany, railway provider Deutsche Bahn created the Mindbox incubator, with up to 100 million Euros in venture capital to invest in startups. Their focus is startups who optimize the customer interface; enhance internal support processes for mobility, logistic, and infrastructure services; or build up new data-based business models. Participants have access to a potential partner (or future acquisition) and resources like DB Open-Data-Portal and APIs, station data, system availability, digital maps, and the carriages of long-distance trains. (address, step clearance, etc.).

A startup-centric ecosystem of innovation

While there are plenty of big players in the smart city mobility space, a successful smart city creates an environment where mobility startups can create a presence in the local mobility ecosystem. A smart city can include incubators, accelerator programs, co-working spaces, and hackathons, which enable startups to thrive. In Amsterdam, StartupAmsterdam was founded by serial entrepreneurs and governmental bodies with over 1000 startups registered. Amsterdam ranks in the European Digital City Index, a European survey that ranks 35 major EU cities on how well they support digital startups and scale-ups.

As a city, Berlin has birthed dozens of new mobility startups, incubators, and accelerators such as Porsche Digital Lab and Daimler Lab1886. Part of the attraction to Berlin is affordable housing and business rental spaces compared to many other capital cities. An example is mobility space The Drivery, which provides a space for startups and large technology companies such as Siemens, Honda, and Hella. A total of 80 companies have now joined, spread over 10,000 m2 of office space, production halls, recreation rooms, and a conference room. Resources include hardware studios, high-tech prototyping maker garages, a GPU farm that provides excessive processing power for AI development. There are plans for a test track for autonomously driving cars, drone launching pads, and access to a pier for smart boats adjacent to Tempelhofer Hafen.

Originally published in MES Insights 3/2/2021

Tech journo and writer, based in Berlin, Germany.

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