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Junya Ishigama on the cover of the October 2019 issue of Azure Magazine. The Innovators Issue.

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When I arrive at A/D/O by Mini in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, I am struck by how the squat, full-block building communicates itself as something old yet new. The graffiti-marked brickwork is of a piece with the (rapidly gentrifying) industrial neighbourhood, but the patio is shaped as if someone has sliced off a triangular wedge from the one-storey volume, providing a jolt of the novel and exciting. 

It’s a sun-showery May afternoon during NYCxDesign and I’m here to learn about A/D/O and specifically its Urban-X accelerator. But I also want to experience the eminently Instagrammable installation in the courtyard. Called Urban Imprint, it’s composed of two terracotta-coloured layers – a floor and a ceiling – connected by a hidden system of steel springs and pulleys. When you step onto the floor, your feet sink into the “ground” and the portion of ceiling above your head lifts like a dome, its tile-like modules separating to bring glimpses of the city into view. The artist Nassia Inglessis and her outfit, Studio INI of London and Athens, have in effect transmuted the rigid materials of urban environments – the modular, terracotta-like surfaces are, in fact, made of a mix of rubber and concrete – into a malleable, human-centric palette that reacts and responds to an individual’s movement. It symbolizes much of what goes on at A/D/O, where the city is being reimagined one innovation at a time.

Opened in January 2017, A/D/O by Mini is many things. It is a physical place that emphasizes placemaking itself: The 2,140-square-metre brick building was a warehouse before locally based nArchitects “remixed” the interior spaces, reclad the facade with the original, graffiti-marked bricks and, in the atrium, installed a skylight that reflects and refracts the Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines. It’s a creative space for designers: a co-working spot that houses artist quarters, a fabrication shop for designers-in-residence and a communal workspace with free Wi-Fi. And it’s open to the public: Locals can pick up a book at the meticulously curated on-site bookshop, attend year-round programming that includes exhibitions and talks focused on A/D/O’s ambitious research projects (a multi-part exploration of border cities, co-developed by Belgian critic–curator Jan Boelen and French designer–curator Charlotte Dumoncel d’Argence, is currently in the works) or grab a meal at the soon-to-open Japanese restaurant Rule of Thirds. “The building is really about how to combine all of these modules under one roof,” says Nate Pinsley, global managing director at A/D/O by Mini. “It’s curiosity that drives this place.”

Perhaps most significantly, A/D/O is the experimental hub of BMW Mini. It takes its initials from Amalgamated Drawing Office, the secret team that BMW set up in 1959 to design the first Mini in response to the fuel crisis of the day. It’s in this spirit that the A/D/O moniker has been revived to launch innovations intended to improve urban life. The brains behind the initiative is Esther Bahne, president of Mini Business Innovation, who joined the company in 2013 and also established its other high-minded forays into design, including Mini Living. And if A/D/O is BMW Mini’s experimental hub, the Urban-X accelerator is the humming engine at the heart of it, residing in a glass-fronted open-concept office that, unlike all other aspects of A/D/O, is off limits. Inside, up to 10 urban-innovation-minded start-ups are brought together every six months to spend 20 weeks developing their products, researching their future customers and practising their pitches to potential investors. 

The hypothesis at the centre of the A/D/O experiment is this: Cities used to be designed around cars, but the future will look much different. And if BMW Mini is to remain relevant, it must invest in ideas that will inform – and possibly shape – the city of the future. To that end, the brand is also building co-living spaces in Shanghai, Berlin and elsewhere in New York that combine residential concepts prototyped by Mini Living with the public-private playground essence of A/D/O’s Brooklyn HQ. Soon, the Greenpoint location will be but a node in an evolving network of bricks-and-mortar testing grounds for urban experimentation. For now, though, it is the only place with an Urban-X accelerator.

“Urban-X helps us not just to find answers but – because it’s early days – also to frame the right questions,” says Bahne. Urban-X selects start-ups working in areas that correspond to the accelerator’s seven verticals: built environment and real estate, public health and safety, infrastructure and industry, energy and grid, govtech and civic solutions, transportation and mobility, and food, waste and water. “One of the big questions we ask about start-ups,” says Micah Kotch, Urban-X’s managing director, “is, ‘Do we think that this product can scale to 100 cities? Over the next five years?’ ” 

Start-ups receive a combined US$150,000 in seed money from Urban-X and its venture partner, Urban Us. “We have skin in the game,” says Kotch. “We hold equity going toward debt in exchange for investing in each team that we work with.” In the first part of the program, focused on customer and product development, start-ups fine-tune their product with an in-house team, from UI and UX designers to machine-learning experts. The second half of the program is concentrated on fundraising; it culminates in a “Demo Day” that sharpens companies’ pitching skills for subsequent one-to-one meetings with potential angel or institutional investors in places like Palo Alto, San Francisco and New York. “It takes talking to 80 to 100 investors in order to close with five investors and a couple of million dollars,” says Liz Sisson, COO of Urban Us and program manager of Urban-X. In fact, Urban-X boasts a US$10-million average investment for each company it has unleashed onto the world and is now onto its sixth cohort.

BMW mini

The accelerator primes start-ups to pitch to two types of end users: government agencies and private businesses (B2G and B2B). While some of its alumni are creating straightforward products that could also appeal directly to consumers (Treau, for instance, is launching an energy-efficient air conditioning unit), others are prototyping technologies with more pronounced governance and privacy implications. These include Swiftera, which enlists a weather balloon to take super-high-resolution photographs of urban centres for any number of purposes, such as “if a city wanted imagery for understanding parking issues, or if they wanted to figure out how many buildings have solar [power], or how people move around,” explains Sisson. “You can talk about insurance [applications] as well – for instance, if an insurance company wants imagery of an accident, or if accidents keep occurring in this one area.” 

Sisson distinguishes the types of innovation that Urban-X and Urban Us are championing from the move-fast-and-break-things tech companies of the recent past. Uber and Airbnb, for instance, have notoriously asserted their presence in cities first, forcing local authorities and regulating bodies to catch up with them after the fact. “They were more like, ‘Government, get out of my way because I want to privatize all of this,’ ” says Sisson. “They probably could have had conversations early on to better understand the communities that are impacted by the technology.”

In other words, working with cities – rather than against them – is central to Urban-X. “We have a really deep and long-standing relationship with a number of folks who are active within city landscape, whether those are municipal officials or agency heads or people from the private sector who work within cities,” says Kotch, who used to be director of the New York Prize and strategic advisor for innovation at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. This focus is affirmed by Sisson. “Total disclaimer: Almost everybody on the Urban Us team has worked in a government function of some sort,” she says. “Frankly, we’re all pro-government.” 

Because of Urban-X’s connection to civic bodies, its alums are poised to provide game-changing solutions, especially when it comes to climate change. (Turn the page for a primer on three of the most promising start-ups.) And governments need them. “The State of New York just passed this incredibly ambitious policy to get to net zero by 2050,” says Kotch. “That’s a lot of entrepreneurial opportunity there.”

Since 2017, Urban-X has invested in dozens of civic-improvement start-ups. Here are three of the most promising:

A Road to Better Streets

“In 10 years, more than half of all vehicles on the road will be autonomous,” says Mark DeSantis, ex-CEO of RoadBotics, the start-up he still serves as a senior advisor. “Today’s five-year-olds will never drive a car – it would be akin to us riding a horse.” Based in Pittsburgh, RoadBotics has just closed its first Series A round of financing, landing a healthy US$7.5 million from Radical Ventures, a US$350-million Toronto-based fund focused on AI technologies. But RoadBotics isn’t selling autonomous vehicles – what it’s selling is better roads. The company’s app-based premise: using the cameras in smartphones positioned on the windshields of public or commercial vehicles – think street-sweepers and delivery trucks – to take images of thoroughfares while pixelating faces, licence plates and other private details. Its AI component simultaneously scans this imagery for telltale signs of potholes and other damage – what DeSantis calls “road cancer.”

Road upkeep is both a universal problem – the American Society for Civil Engineers pegs the cost of simply maintaining existing U.S. thoroughfares at US$1 trillion – and a huge opportunity. And if autonomous, co-shared vehicles are the future, road quality could affect carmakers directly, the damage caused by shoddy asphalt no longer absorbed by car insurers but by the firms operating the vehicles. Already, RoadBotics has 160 clients – from municipalities to road engineering firms – in 24 U.S. states and two boroughs in London, England. “We’re at the front end of the autonomous revolution,” says DeSantis, who predicts that his nascent industry could be valued at US$7 trillion by 2050. 

The Newest Power Players

To describe the gist of Blueprint Power, it’s hard to beat the start-up’s own slogan: “We turn buildings into power plants,” a model of crystal-clear messaging. As a rule, buildings tend to generate more energy than they need; rather than wasting it, however, owners and operators will be able to use Blueprint Power’s software platforms to manage their energy loads and on-site generation more efficiently as well as sell excess electricity to the power grid. Currently, the company is testing its tech in New York City, where both the state and the city have established clean-energy incentivization programs. In the near future, more office, retail and residential buildings will run on solar or other types of Internet-connected green electricity, placing Blueprint Power ahead of the game.

The company (whose CEO, Robyn Beavers, is pictured above) is an example of an Urban-X start-up that interacts directly with governing bodies and utilities. “Energy is a highly regulated space,” says Liz Sisson, Urban-X’s project manager. “It was important for us to make sure that the team understood that, that it might take a while to try to push government to be more accepting of, say, putting solar batteries on buildings.” 

AI for the People

When a tech start-up says it can read the emotions of a public place, as Qucit does in a website video, it naturally raises a flag. The immediate assumption: cameras – and lots of them – capturing all manner of smiles, slumped shoulders, wild hand gesticulations. But Qucit relies on much richer data than what a lens can capture: It collects information by running detailed, one-on-one questionnaires. “We believe in human interaction,” says Qucit CEO Raphaël Cherrier, “and only in AI that is helpful to humans.”

Comprising hundreds of questions, the survey is proprietary material. But the basic queries include examples like “Is where you are standing right now beautiful? Is it comfortable? Is it stressful?” Qucit then overlays the answers, as the diagram above suggests, onto publicly available data about the site, such as its plant life, public furniture, air pollution levels and relationship to nearby roads and buildings. Ultimately it puts its algorithm to use to determine how the subjective words “beautiful” and “comfortable” correspond with the objective facts of the space. One day, Cherrier predicts, the algorithm will be able to scan any street imagery and understand the experiential quality of a site. 

“The value proposition is to help real estate developers build more livable spaces and to improve the quality of life in cities,” he says. “And we want decision-makers to have a better view of what citizens really want.” The firm is already active in its native France. In Paris, its data was used to make Place de la Nation friendlier to pedestrians; in Versailles, Qucit is helping that city make its business district more appealing so that it attracts people after work hours. The company is also working on numerous side projects, including one that gauges how to better calibrate bike-share programs: Vancouver’s Mobi, for instance, is using Qucit’s rebalancing software to move bikes around to parts of the city where cyclists need them most.

With its Start-up Accelerator Urban-X, BMW Mini is Betting Big on the Future

Three years ago, BMW Mini launched Urban-X inside its new Brooklyn creative hub, A/D/O by Mini, in order to incubate city-focused tech and design start-ups – and to give itself first dibs on potentially game-changing ideas. But what kind of real-world innovations have been spawned to date?

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