Disrupters: Devices for the Digital Economy, Urban Environments

Danielle Beurteaux

Home Smart Home

More people now live in cities than at any other time in history, and their number is predicted to increase: 66% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050. To house all these people, innovators are developing solutions for smaller, more efficient, and environmentally sustainable abodes that incorporate digital technologies.


The house of the future is small and smart. Jeff Wilson founded Kasita, based in Austin, Texas, after spending a year living in a 33-square-foot converted dumpster to experience the challenges of (very) small living for himself. Kasita’s homes combine design minimalism with smart home technology that makes new housing efficient to run, inexpensive to own, simple to maintain, and quick to install (in as little as a day).

Aimed at people who live alone, the steel-framed units are 352 square feet, modular, and stackable. Although they can be sited alone, when they are grouped, stacked in a tower, or even placed on a roof, they make maximum use of available space. Aside from functioning as small abodes, the units can also be used as offices and more. They’re assembled at the Kasita factory in Austin and come fully kitted out with the smart home devices (such as a thermostat and a digital assistant) to run an ultramodern living or work space. The first Kasita is up and running in East Austin, with more to follow. And the company is developing a larger unit for families.


Easily Transportable

As urban centers become more crowded, people put extra strain on infrastructure and the environment. By eschewing cars and trucks, some startups are devising better ways to navigate the delivery of people and goods quickly, quietly, and fuel efficiently.

Starship Robots

Small robots are showing their potential to take over last-mile deliveries—the final leg to the consumer. Delivery robots from Starship Technologies are now navigating the sidewalks of Washington, D.C.; the San Francisco Bay area; London; Hamburg, Germany; Tallinn, Estonia; and Bern, Switzerland.

The company is the latest enterprise from Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis. Its six-wheeled robots look like coolers with antennae, and they’re packed with technology that allows them to negotiate sidewalks—and avoid pedestrians’ feet. The units are equipped with nine cameras (including time-of-flight cameras for judging distance), sensors that provide 360-degree coverage, and GPS- and computer vision–based navigation systems to create a 3D map and pinpoint location. The robots rely on a combination of their onboard technology and guidance from human operators to ensure that goods get to their intended destination.

The Lilium Jet

The commute of the future might take to the skies. Munich-based Lilium, founded in 2015, wants to bring on-demand, inexpensive short-distance air travel to city dwellers. The Lilium Jet is an electric aircraft capable of vertical takeoff and landing (known in the industry as VTOL). The craft is powered by 36 jet engines, which transition from a vertical position during takeoff to horizontal for flight, allowing the jet to accelerate. Because it’s fully electric, it’s quiet and emission free, making it environmentally suitable for urban spaces.

The company just completed the first test flight outside of Munich with a two-seater prototype. The eventual five-passenger aircraft will have a maximum travel range of about 190 miles, which it could cover in an hour at top speed. The usual 45-minute-plus trip from Midtown Manhattan to JFK Airport would be cut to a mere 5 minutes.


Street Sense

We’re at the beginning of an urban revolution. Not only are digital technologies changing how we interact with cities (such as with on-demand apps and environmental sensing), they are transforming how cities interact with us. These startups are using data analysis to bring fresh ideas to improve how we live and work in our cities and how we use resources in services such as environmental management, precision food production, and sanitation.

Array of Things

Chicago’s Array of Things (AoT) is gathering data to make big cities more livable. The AoT is a collaborative project with the Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Chicago, and a dozen other educational institutions, together with major technology companies. By the end of 2018, Chicago will have 500 AoT nodes—boxes containing sensors and cameras—attached to traffic signal poles throughout the city.

The units collect block-level information, including temperature, air pressure, humidity, air quality, noise, and vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and send it to Argonne National Laboratory. Argonne publishes it to the City of Chicago Open Data Portal and the open-source platform Plenario, where anyone can access it. A broad range of potential users and uses include urban planners designing new transit options, asthma sufferers who need to monitor air quality, and pedestrians looking for the safest route to walk at night.


Plant foods of the future can be grown to exact specifications. Dallas-based GreenTech Agro’s Growtainer is bringing precision agriculture to any area big enough to place a 20- to 45-foot shipping container. Inside is a completely customizable growing environment that aims for higher yields in less time than conventional farming, while conserving resources.

The company’s Growracks, a modular vertical rack system that may be customized for plant height, houses the plants. The crops are managed by the company’s Growtroller system: its sensors monitor each plant’s environment to deliver the exact levels of irrigation, LED light, nutrients, and oxygen needed for each. What’s more, the plants—growing indoors in a climate-controlled space—are protected from pests and adverse weather. Units are currently being used to grow salad greens and herbs in the United States, Spain, and the United Kingdom.


Garbage collection is highly inefficient. The standard method is for sanitation crews to collect trash from receptacles on a set schedule, regardless of whether the bins are empty or have been overflowing for days. That can mean wasted labor and unnecessary trips by sanitation trucks, as well as increased litter.

New smart trash tech-nology aims for cleaner streets at lower cost. Victor Stanley’s Relay uses Wi-Fi, sensors, and GPS technology to monitor how full a receptacle is, the last time it was emptied, and other information, such as weight, temperature, and location. City sanitation departments can track all these details from a web portal and send crews out only when needed. Units have already been deployed in Boston and Washington, D.C., and are coming soon to Pittsburgh.


Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.

Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.