Designing Solutions for Cities in Crisis
The Urban Works Innovation Challenge supports innovators and entrepreneurs who are passionate about producing viable and interdisciplinary tech-based solutions for transforming 21st century cities in India into sustainable and safe work environments, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost 600 million people will live in cities by 2030. Rapid urbanization poses serious environmental and societal challenges, including degrading air quality, rising plastic waste, hindered mobility, mental health problems, and reduced safety for women. In addition, a crisis such as COVID-19 brings about the need for city-wide resilience. In this evolving landscape, the country’s urban workforce requires workplaces and city-wide ecosystems to become more productive, innovative, safe, and inclusive. Solutions that make use of contemporary technology can play a critical role in addressing these needs.
Teams are selected through a competitive process. Winners receive mentorship from faculty and alumni of The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University as well as distinguished entrepreneurs and academics in India. Winning teams also avail of unrestricted capital from a total annual fund of Rs. 1 crore. Startups with successful pilots have opportunities to pitch their solutions to leading investors and corporations in the field.
In its third year, a rigorous training curriculum was developed for the selected startups so that their promising innovations for job security for migrant workers, sustainable use of water, and sanitizing indoor areas could be converted into investible, market-ready enterprises. Faculty and staff from Columbia Engineering and Columbia Entrepreneurship, along with local experts from India, coached these companies on important business principles through workshops, seminars, and one-on-one meetings from April-October 2021.
Now, more than ever, we need innovations for living and working in Indian cities. Urban habitats in India are already fraught with environmental, social, and health stresses. The Covid-19 pandemic has further disrupted urban life dramatically, exposing vulnerabilities and risks in the functioning of our cities. The Urban Works Innovation Challenge 2020-2021 invites applications from passionate innovators and startups who have tech-enabled solutions that can make working in our cities sustainable and safe. The desired Internet-based or App solutions should be strongly grounded in the Indian context and take into account the country’s attributes such as high urban density, workforce diversity, and complex social structure.
The 2020-21 challenge focuses on designing solutions for cities in crisis. The challenge will give innovators a globally competitive opportunity to propose and refine solutions for some of India’s most pressing social challenges and gain from tools, learning sessions, peer networks, and unrestricted capital to transform their idea into action. Innovations may apply to a diverse range of industries and socio-economic backgrounds. Examples of problems to which solutions could be developed include – By what means can we ensure workplaces effectively manage waste, are able to efficiently utilize renewable energy, and have access to clean air and water? How can the use of green technologies help workers in both manufacturing and service sectors? How can health and wellness platforms and apps improve workplace happiness and productivity? How can sensors and real-time data gathering tools be deployed to create safer and more productive working conditions for everyone, particularly women? Which technological innovations can help cities adapt to the new normal of the COVID-19 pandemic? How can we make our cities resilient to future pandemic situations?
Participants are encouraged to submit their ideas for tech solutions in the broad categories of:
- Health and well-being, including mental health
- City-wide resilience to pandemics
- Access to clean air and water
- Waste management and circular economy
- Green buildings and infrastructure
- Sustainable mobility
- Renewable energy and energy efficiency
- Gender security
The innovation challenge is open to applications from startups, professionals, entrepreneurs, researchers, and practitioners intent on designing the future of Indian cities in response to crisis. Eligible individuals or teams will have a proof of concept in place, with an ambition of refining the proof of concept beyond its current development stage. Participants should be willing to commit to workshops and mentoring opportunities over a six-month period beginning in March 2021, and be willing to demonstrate their solution in Mumbai, Bengaluru, New Delhi, or virtually during this time period.
We especially encourage app-based, IT-enabled, online offerings that can achieve rapid scale. The desired solutions need be demonstrated with pilots on the ground. While considering the broader context of the city itself, pilots would be demonstrated and refined in specific work environments that are found in a typical Indian city. Ideally the proposed solution should be scalable and replicable in other cities.
What is a strong demonstration of an early-stage startup’s success? A technically sound, commercially viable on-ground pilot.
What makes a startup investment-ready? Achieving product-market fit while maintaining good customer relationships and growing in different geographies/markets ensures investment readiness.
A strong believer in innovation, Ioannis Kymissis, Professor and Chair of Columbia’s Department of Electrical Engineering, speaks to the Center about innovation, startups, and mentoring Urban Works companies from India and the US.
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