City Innovation: Inspiration from the World’s Best

City Innovation

Many might associate Denmark with healthy and happy people, a horde of bikes and a sustainable energy and electricity system including wind and district heating.

Copenhagen and Innovation Center Denmark were therefore invited as representatives as some of the most remarkable cities gathered at the City Innovate Summit in San Francisco this recent week.

City Innovation
City Innovation

While the Danish capital does indeed focus heavily on incorporating innovation and technology in development of existing as well as in the building of new neighborhoods, here is an insight into the newest projects from all over the world:

The city is the new smart phone

The common denominator is that to create a city that encompasses everyone, everyone must be involved in the planning. Silicon Valley executive Peter Hirshberg compares the city to a LEGO brick, a place for building up, trying new designs, tearing down, and building up again.

Look at the city as a smartphone: the place where developers and entrepreneurs get together to test out new ideas and solutions. What if we expanded the platform for new-thinking and innovations to be not just a smartphone but an entire city?

Recent trends in Tel Aviv, San Francisco and (yes!) Copenhagen, are to invite people to get access to the city data, space, sensors, and let them use the possibilities to create better solutions. It admittedly seems as a no-brainer, and the hardest part is surely also what concrete initiatives that can be brought forth in the cities.

Let’s look at a couple of the trends:

Trend 1: Free the data!

A number of cities have created portals, where citizens and companies can go in and access a lot of the (anonymized) data generated in the city. While the opening of data can not stand alone, the will to implementation of the ideas must follow.

An example is a San Francisco Urban Hackathon (a hackathon is an event where citizens and groups are invited to “hack” the city, meaning trying to solve problems in a new way), where a group made a map of all reported crimes and visualized it to find the “worst areas”. The police greeted the map as documentation of where they should put a larger effort, and the citizens were happy that their neighborhood problems were finally taken seriously.

Trend 2: Public sector innovation

Instead of leaving innovation and competitiveness to the private sector, a number of companies have started to make innovation part of the daily agenda. A number of cities have named a city official the Chief Innovation Officer or Chief Technology Officer. Those officers have broad areas of operations, and see if things can be optimized – both in the city and within the governing body. In Oakland, California, the office hands out “Most Innovative Employee”-prizes.

An initiative that has been used in the US on both a city and national scale, is the inclusion of private sector entrepreneurs acting as “intra-preneurs” or “Entrepreneurs-in-Residence” in public departments on a year-long fellowship, in order to bring new ideas to the table. An Entrepreneur-in-Residence in San Francisco for instance developed a system to ease navigation for visually impaired visitors throughout the airport.

The Code for America projects is worth looking into, with young designers and software developers trying to solve a number of tasks via virtual services as apps or text messages for citizens and administrators. Have a look at the video below describing a project: they might be joking a bit, but also shows what kind of tools that are possible when teaming up with entrepreneurs.

Trend 3: A city that accommodates ideas

Finally, one of the most striking trends is how a lot of cities really have realized how important innovation is, for instance, this year’s US Conference of Mayors had the theme “Innovation in Cities”.

“The trick is to make people think that government is fun – not the normal adjectives as lame, boring or basically anything but fun,” explains Director of Young Adults Michael Vole from Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv is the city that is consistently ranking in top 3 when Innovation and Entrepreneurship-rankings are published. The city has invested in the entire ecosystem around creativity, including free wifi, affordable housing, startup visas, a strong gay community (which for some reasons seems to be present in many innovative cities), and in general opening up start-ups for everybody, so that also elderly, school-kids and parents can see, what it takes to turn ideas into businesses.

He explains how they have also taken city officials out to meet people where they are – that is on online platforms and by giving brief 20 minutes talks in bars and cafes. Lastly he mentions how they have taken a number of public buildings, and turned these into study halls and co-work spaces when they are not in use.

City Innovation: Where to start?

With a lot of trends and possibilities, where do you even start? Looking at Danish examples, we have found three examples:

InnoCamp: Involving students, local industry and public institutions in a innovation competition, leading to actual tools for participating case companies.

Zero-Waste City: A Danish town where citizens compete about minimizing their waste. Another version is the Californian Coolest City Challenge, where you get points if you are below similar households.

Ideas from future users [Here is no link, as you probably know better who to contact in your community]: If you have an educational institution like a school, Danish “efterskole”, high school or a university college, then try to ask if they would be willing to work on a joint project, getting the students to point out problems and find potential solutions.


For further information, feel free to contact Innovation Officer Christian Vinther: chrvje (at)


Venture Capital Background - Grunge Wordcloud Concept.

By Shomit Ghose, Managing Director & Partner at Onset Ventures, member of ICDK’s advisory board

In the midst of Silicon Valley ‘s current climate – specifically The-Bubble-That’s-Not-A-Bubble in which we live – we’ve seen an explosion of company financings and an explosion in company valuations. At the earliest stages, there were an astounding 70,730 start-ups receiving angel funding in 2013. At the same time, at the latest stages of financing, there are now over 100 private companies – “unicorns” – with valuations in excess of $1 billion. In this frothy environment, what’s the best way for a start-up, particularly one based in Denmark, to secure interest and start-up funding from Silicon Valley venture investors?

Despite today’s frenetic funding environment, the best path to getting start-up financing remains the same well-worn path that’s always prevailed: getting a personal introduction to a partner at the right venture fund; focusing on an addressable market that’s multiple billions of dollars in size; having a disruptive business model; having unique and defensible technology; having a talented and tenacious founding team; and deal terms that are appropriate for the company.

In addition, companies that garner the most investment interest nowadays are the ones with business models that are relentlessly data-centric. Whether it’s wearables, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3-D printing, next-generation cyber-security, or the sharing economy, everything today is driven by masses of data. For example, wearables and the IoT provide an interface for the physical world to the Internet; these devices are producing huge volumes of data at the network’s edge. But wearables and the IoT can only provide value when their data can be captured and analyzed. Consequently, the business model here is explicitly not about the devices themselves but about understanding the data produced.

Similarly, 3-D printing largely presents an exercise in personalized manufacturing that is driven by data. Just as Big Data personalizes content in print (Google), video (Netflix), and audio (Pandora), Big Data will also drive the content (aka. personalized manufacturing) of 3-D printing. With the Big Data dynamic in mind, Danish IT start-ups wishing to attract the attention of Silicon Valley VCs today should be advised to define their value propositions and business models from an acutely data-centric perspective. The IT industry has only just begun to harness the power of Big Data, and start-ups who are pioneering new ways of examining and gaining insight from huge volumes of data will be tomorrow’s biggest success stories.

In addition, Danish start-ups should be prepared to move their management teams – though not the rest of their companies – to Silicon Valley for the first few years of the company’s life. Early-stage start-ups face extremely high execution risk, and those risks are best mitigated by having the founders proximal to their company’s Silicon Valley investors. Of course, about half of US venture capital dollars today continues to be invested in Silicon Valley. But crucially, the Valley also has the world’s deepest supply of risk-willing investors, the majority of whom are former entrepreneurs and battle-hardened veterans of the start-up wars themselves.

Today, the climate for early-stage start-ups in Silicon Valley is the best it’s ever been. The combination of passionate entrepreneurs, experienced investors with plentiful capital, and new business models founded on Big Data make it the best time in history to start a company that may become tomorrow’s Next Big Thing.

The secret sauce of healthy living: Holidays, “Hygge” and Biking!


In numerous studies Danes have been called the happiest people on the planet, and there seems to be more than one explanation to this phenomenon. At The Culture Trip they recently wrote an article spilling the beans on how to boost your health and happiness by living the Scandinavian way. Here are three of the most significant Danish action items that are almost certain to deliver health and happiness:

Go on holidays

You might be very passionate about what you do, and you might not be a firm believer in work-life balance. Maybe you simply live to work, or maybe you are longing for those holidays? Where the average American only has nine days off per year, the Danes enjoy up to six weeks in comparison! This Scandinavian vacation culture has proven pretty effective in reducing the risk of heart disease, depression, and other serious health conditions associated with working overtime. Maybe you should just book that holiday now?

Remember to “hygge”

The Danish word “hygge” has no equivalent in the English vocabulary. The tradition of “hygge” is deeply rooted in everything Danish, and it means having a cosy time whether spending it alone or with your loved ones. It’s all about slowing down and treating yourself to an afternoon snuggling on the couch or spending quality time with friends and family. Life is all about treasuring those little moments, and if you remember to “hygge”, your happiness will be boosted in no time!

Bike away

Where the US is a nation of cars, the Danes would more likely call themselves a nation of bikes. The Culture Trip describes how almost 30 percent of both Danes and Swedes living in cities cycle to and from work on a regular basis. And why not do just that? Instead of spending precious hours every day on your commute, you could get your daily exercise from cycling to and from work. You’ll get fit and thereby optimize your overall well-being.

Are you starting to feel a bit intrigued about that Danish nation of happy campers? Why not go have a look for yourself? Boost your health and happiness by spending your next holiday full of hygge and cycling in Denmark.

There might be better persons for your position…

…but they are not here right now!

A start-up initially makes all decisions within a small group and will have to build on the different strengths of the team members. Sometimes you might think that someone else would be better qualified than you, but if they are not around, then it means that YOU are the best. Photo from LA Startup weekend by Phillippe Lewicki on Flickr
A start-up initially makes all decisions within a small group. Sometimes you might think that someone else would be way better qualified than you, but if they are not around, it means that YOU are the best.    Photo from LA Startup weekend by Phillippe Lewicki on Flickr

That was one of the key lessons learned, when Nordic tech-connector Silicon Vikings joined entrepreneurial Babson College  in hosting an event with the self-explanatory title “Women Entrepreneurial Leaders – Breaking the Status Quo!”.

Pioneers of the future

Though targeting only a minority – unfortunately – of the Bay area’s entrepreneurs, the female-oriented event gave precious take-aways that can be used by all aspiring start-up’ers.

Maia Bitter, co-founder of women’s jewellery subscription start-up Rocksbox, was the first speaker to talk in the TED-inspired setting. She described herself as someone who never really wanted to swim along the stream. Instead she has worked in a number of start-ups after graduating from Olin College, as one of their ambitiously named “Engineers of the Future”. As she however puts it herself – it is just a shame that the engineers of the future all operate in the world of today.

After joining the newly founded Rocksbox in 2012 as their first employee for a 3 months engagement, she was at a point towards the end sitting at a bar next to the company founder and CEO. When the CEO offered her to join in fully as co-founder and CTO, she first refused, reasoning that there had to be a bunch of people that would take up that role way better than her. The founder thereafter took a look around the bar, and responded how that could very well be true, but that those people apparently was not really around. Maia Bittner then joined in, and since then, Rocksbox has expanded and now employs more than 20 people.

The entrepreneur’s many decisions

In the first phases of starting up a company, everything might rely on just a small number of persons – with the founder suddenly in charge of decision far from her or his normal area of expertise. Whether you are an experienced electrical engineer who suddenly has to deal with marketing and suppliers, or a business student who needs to provide rather technical specifications, in order to make an app work just right.

When all these kinds of decisions have to be taken, one can soon start doubting, whether this or that was actually the right choice, and if it was smart to put you in the driver’s seat at all.

Then remember the words of Maia Bittner, someone else might have chosen differently – but unfortunately they were not here, and instead you yourself have done your absolute best. After all – you are the one who knows your company the best.

Stay entrepreneurial!

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