Our relationship with cities is symbiotic – and as we evolve, they do too. Today companies can take a proactive approach to their home towns and transform them into places to serve their communities, help the environment or just add to the local character.
Increasingly, people are ditching the idea of a career of corporate ladder-climbing and opting to go it alone. And entrepreneurs are picky: they want to set up shop in a city, neighbourhood or street good enough to invest in and call home. It means that cities need to be (even more) competitive when it comes to the quality of life they offer. Why set up your tech company in London if you could have it beachside in Tel Aviv? And, maybe it’s worth the extra corporate tax City Hall charges if it means better public transport and a more vibrant city centre?
But the benefits of attracting businesses to your town are more than just economic. Entrepreneurs that have chosen a particular city or neighbourhood will not only do what it takes to keep their address there – they’ll also come up with money-making ideas that can innovate how their city is run, improve street life or transform workspaces into public places.
It’s proof that businesses aren’t always self-interested and that you need not be a big player to have an impact on city life. Here are five entrepreneurs whose business ideas are inadvertently public services for their cities: from São Paulo to Los Angeles.
Since 2005 we’ve witnessed the rise of shared work spaces that are a natural spin-off from more people choosing (or being forced into) going freelance or setting up their own businesses.
Mutinerie in Paris is one of the newer additions to the roster. Its philosophy is that work is better when you combine people from as many industries as possible. A riff on an already strong sharing economy in France (shared car pools are common), Mutinerie is helping to push the more conservative, unsociable Parisians into space-sharing Palo Alto types. And their fans aren’t just individuals. Organisations, such as the Geneva-based New Cities Foundation, have their Paris base at Mutinerie.
Monocle comment: Mutinerie makes workplaces more like public spaces but one where you might not just meet your neighbours but also a new business partner.
Discover a part of the city that even many Paulistanos ignore and pay as much as you think it’s worth – the premise of newborn company Giro in Sampa (Portuguese for strolling in São Paulo).
Founded in April by Luis Simardi and Shirley Damy, it promotes free tours in São Paulo’s once-wealthy (but now down-at-heel) Centro district on Sunday mornings. The company aspires to open up the formerly no-go zone by getting people to experience the neighbourhood on foot. The routes not only focus on architecture, such as buildings by Artacho Jurado and Oscar Niemeyer but also an explanation of how Centro is changing for the better. “Our goal is to awaken this interest and to reveal unknown facets of our town,” says Simardi.
The company has a team of 10 expert guides and also manages paid tours for groups and companies – ranging from the equivalent of €7 to €17 per person, depending on the length of the route.
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Monocle comment: An important early step for Centro is reclaiming the streets by getting more people out on foot.
Green roofs have become one of Japan’s most popular energy solutions. Michi Corporation is a Tokyo-based outfit that has set-up a turf business – Green Everywhere Plans – that supplies squares of lawn and supports Japanese farmers. The soil base comes from Sri Lanka, made from an eco-friendly mix of discarded coconut husks and elephant dung, while the grass is seeded and grown in Japan. The grass can withstand extreme temperatures and retains water to minimise the need for watering.
Monocle comment: Greening up cities isn’t just about efficiency. A little bit of turf is a refreshing sight – especially when you’re sky-high.
In LA the average price of using parking meters has fallen. In Fort Lauderdale, finding spaces is now less of a hassle. These changes are thanks to Streetline, a Silicon Valley firm creating a better environment for businesses by helping cities remedy their parking problems. Using data from sensors and other sources, Streetline can show cities where parking issues are causing congestion, how to vary meter pricing to reflect demand and even – pity the motorist – real-time parking violations. Cities from Indianapolis to Manchester are making use of the technology.
Monocle comment: Parking in busy cities is a perennial problem and one area where a bit of tech might be a big help.
Copenhagen’s first portable bookshop sells books and poems along with cups of fresh coffee from a customised carrier bike, which takes its post on street corners around the city.
This is one of many alternative ways indie publisher Byens Forlag trades. Founded on the idea that it needed to engage with people in the city, the small company runs two book cafés, one mobile bookshop and publishes up to nine books a year by budding authors.
“Books don’t sell that well alone. You need to add something that’s surprising and engaging. We have found our niche by combining books sales with unusual events in the city,” says owner Thomas Aagaard Skovmand.
If you can’t find time to make it to the bookshop, then the bookshop will come to you. And, few things improve a city more than boosting the liveliness of its streets.
Monocle comment: There’s nothing a Dane can’t do with a bicycle: giving print a new platform and delivering books on two wheels could be the way forward.
“Entrepreneurs and cities are more inextricably linked today than ever before. At a time when most of the world’s business headlines focus on the immense impact of the global economy there is an unmistakable trend taking place. Entrepreneurs are seeking out cities that offer authentic experiences.
Entrepreneurs have long craved the access to capital, networking opportunities and energy that cities have to offer. However, in recent years we have witnessed a fresh movement among entrepreneurs that combines their dreams of economic opportunity with community engagement.
You needn’t look any further than my hometown of Detroit. Some may point to the news of Detroit’s recent bankruptcy filing as evidence of its demise but there are many bright spots there led by businesses of all shapes and sizes. A small group of entrepreneurs has formed Detroit Soup, a monthly public dinner presentation where attendees vote to fund small to medium-sized arts and community projects. As a result cities become more liveable, entrepreneurs open up to rewarding opportunities and everyone involved wins.”