There are certain people and occupations tasked with leading the next iteration of the American city. The people in these positions constantly keep one antenna tuned to what’s happening today and one engaged with conversations concerning the future.
Micah Kotch is one such person. As managing director of URBAN-X, a tech startup accelerator reimagining city life, he regularly engages with innovators. The companies that go through URBAN-X range across all aspects of city infrastructure and life, from mobility to energy and resource management.
One particular focus on Kotch’s mind will completely permeate how cities will function—sustainability. He is highly involved in how travel, energy, and resource planning can lead to a more sustainable city. With increasing populations and more resources needed than ever, urban planners must begin to think about holistic and renewable resource strategies to compensate for increased consumption.
We spoke with Kotch on the roles and responsibilities of mobility in the next stage of our cities. For operators, his thoughts on how they can contribute are invaluable for adapting.
Flash: How was your 2020? Has it affected what you’re focusing on for 2021?
Micah Kotch: 2020 was a challenge. Personally, I lost friends to COVID-19, and to witness the suffering in every corner of the globe, the racial injustice here in the US, climate change, and political division—it tests your faith. I don’t think the terribleness had anything to do with the year, or at least how we think of our trips around the sun. As I wrote late last year, I think we’ve entered a time of “colliding crises.” What’s needed is more empathy and adaptive leadership across the public and private sectors.
In terms of how it’s shaped our focus for 2021—we’ve adapted to a hybrid remote/in-person work environment, we’re testing new hypotheses around program design, and we’re more focused than ever on meeting the challenges of climate change and urban mobility.
As to why Urban-X was founded—a mobility business that took the lead in helping to develop smarter cities—what role does mobility have in contributing to smart, sustainable cities?
In many ways, transportation is the ideal framework to think about urban design, planning, and climate justice. Our streets, cars, buses, subways, bikes—you name it—are the gateway to our cities. They are what takes us to our jobs, brings us to our family and friends, and allows us to enjoy our downtowns and local businesses. They can lead us to new opportunities. Providing accessible, affordable, and efficient avenues for transportation for everyone is the foundation for more vibrant, resilient, and just cities.
As an automotive OEM, MINI has its roots in solving big problems. [Urban-X was spun off from MINI] during the first gas crisis in the UK as a better way for Londoners to get around. So, addressing society-scale challenges faced by cities is in the MINI DNA.
Are there any smart city initiatives started by mobility companies that have stood out to you?
A recent report from Uber called for public transit agencies to integrate ride-sharing and micro-transit services into their networks to support ridership recovery. The state of Michigan and a startup called Cavenue have announced they will build an autonomous vehicle corridor between Ann Arbor and Detroit. The self-driving car roadway will be created with input from automakers, including Ford, Toyota, Honda, BMW, and self-driving company Waymo.
I think these kinds of initiatives open up a whole host of questions that most people pay very little attention to. For example, how will my travel be priced if I don’t have to pay for gas? What if I thought about mobility as a dynamically-priced service instead of a product? Can government services evolve so they’re more a part of my integrated digital life?
What are some of the main challenges cities have going into 2021 in creating smart and sustainable cities?
Cities face major issues around revenue shortfalls, particularly for mass transit, where fare-box receipts are off by double digits. They face racial justice, equity, and surveillance issues, which I think go hand in hand. They need to figure out how to get people back to their central business districts or rezone commercial properties for affordable housing. They need to figure out how to deal with a surge in e-commerce, universal, affordable broadband and 5G rollouts, climate resiliency, youth unemployment, and much more. It’s not easy being a municipal official or city agency head, which is why they need the active engagement of the private sector to help tackle these complex and interrelated problems.
What are the priorities that cities have going into the next five years?
Many cities are ready for a fresh start under the Biden-Harris administration and, undoubtedly, priority number one for all cities will be recovering and rebuilding from the pandemic. This means taking a holistic look at our urban ecosystems to figure out not only how we can get back to pre-pandemic levels, but also build back our cities so they’re more equitable and anti-fragile. Cities will be looking at how to reinvigorate mass transportation and incorporate new modes of transit like personal electric bikes and other micro-mobility.
With widening gaps in connectivity highlighted by the pandemic, cities will also be thinking about expanding broadband access and utilizing 5G to keep us connected. Plus, with a true commitment to addressing climate change now coming from the White House, cities will begin to prioritize sustainability and resilience. This can be tackled by creating a robust pipeline for jobs in a low-carbon economy or reinvigorating old industries and infrastructure through novel solutions built by startups.
Parking, as an industry, has generally had to rely on other industries that are not known for their sustainability—oil, gas, auto. As an industry that has relied on cars, how can operators contribute to more sustainable cities?
Operators have a role to play in EV [electric vehicle] infrastructure, energy storage, and providing safe and connected parking for bikes and e-scooters. We have a portfolio company called Oonee which developed a smart, modular, customizable pod that provides secure parking for scooters and bicycles and public space amenities. There’s an interesting opportunity here around mobility, but also as hosts for distributed generation—particularly for solar and storage.
In a recent article, you mentioned that climate tech investment will be a particular trend in 2021. Can you expand on what that might look like?
The White House is sending signals showing a strong push for climate action and energy innovation. Also, investments in environmental justice to drive a low-carbon future are well received. If Biden can get Congress to come along for the ride, we’ll see continued investments in the energy transition—which has seen a whopping $501.3 billion in investment over the last year and is showing no signs of stopping, even in the face of increasing economic uncertainty due to the pandemic. In 2020, the world’s largest corporations, including Walmart, BP, and Morgan Stanley committed to some form of net-zero within the next few decades. Microsoft, Unilever, Amazon, and Stripe went a step further by creating funds to invest in climate technologies.
With climate-friendly policy coming out of DC, we see more investments in climate tech. For instance, New York has been a breeding ground for companies focused on energy efficiency management and renewable energy solutions. Blueprint Power is an URBAN-X alumni company and one to watch in this space as they’re focused on accelerating the growth and financial sustainability of distributed, intelligent, clean energy. If we can build a cluster of climate tech companies in New York that address the challenges of the built environment here, there’s massive job creation and workforce development potential that matches a real need that is particularly acute in frontline communities.
How might this affect mobility?
In many ways, 2020 was the year of the EV with Tesla’s stock zooming 700%, Lyft and Uber pledging to go 100% electric, and key governments (e.g., California, China) phasing out combustion vehicles in the next few decades. General Motors pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040—removing emissions from all of its products and global operations, or offsetting those emissions through carbon credits or carbon capture within the next two decades. They committed to having a fully electric fleet of vehicles by 2035. It’s clear: EVs have arrived. Plus, micro-mobility and e-bikes are continuing their push into the mainstream as battery costs continue to drop and companies figure out the service angle.
You’ve said that innovating for citizens is different than innovating for consumers. Can you expand on that? And as parking companies get closer to their local governments, should they begin to think of their customers as citizens as opposed to consumers?
Public sector innovation and private sector innovation should both embrace the customer discovery process—which is really using the scientific method (create a hypothesis, test, analyze, adjust) in the process of getting to know your customer—and how your proposed solution can help solve a problem. The difference is the public sector should take into consideration principles like equity, the public good, and the commons.
What role does the Internet of Things (IoT) have in creating smarter cities, and is there an opportunity for parking and other mobility assets to make transit and parking easier via integration?
We live in an age of sensors, data, and analysis. But, at the same time, the US is not Singapore, where every piece of connected infrastructure lives on a single platform. The vision of making transit, parking, and mobility easier is a good one, but it is much easier said than done. The risk with all these systems being under one umbrella, besides the cyber-vulnerability, is that it could easily become a walled garden, leading to monopolistic pricing. I’m not sure most consumers want this, which perhaps is one reason why MaaS (mobility-as-a-service) hasn’t taken off.
Do you see cities doubling down on EV technology, and what might the future of this technology lead to?
The Biden administration has committed to 50,000 public EV chargers. Those have to go somewhere. With 50 million EVs on the road over the next five years, the big questions are how will fleets charge, how will private-cars charge, what will happen with utility tariffs and demand charges, and how can charging infrastructure increase utilization. As storage prices continue to drop, EV charging infrastructure should integrate storage and broaden to become e-mobility hubs that service e-bikes, e-scooters, and whatever form factor comes next.
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