MINI Insider

A collage featuring URBAN-X Design Director Johan Schwind, and images of the URBAN-X offices.

The Future as a Business.

Will our efforts against climate change be won in the cities? Ideas on how to achieve this abound, and MINI is helping to realise them with URBAN-X. On Earth Day, it’s time to take a look at what we are aiming to do.

According to the UN, by 2050 about 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Even today, more than half of all the people on the planet live in cities. This rise in percentage, coupled with the natural increase in the world’s population could mean an additional 2.5 billion city dwellers in about 30 years, mostly in Africa and Asia. 

So, its obvious, that when it comes to effectively counteracting climate change, big cities have a key role to play. But it’s not just because of the amount of people there, it’s the unique challenges cities pose. They only cover 2 per cent of the Earth’s surface but consume 78 per cent of the world’s energy and produce more than 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. When temperatures rise, the asphalt and concrete there heat up more than the surrounding rural areas do. Currently they are fossil fuel hungry places, where the limited number of green areas and the density of the populace exacerbates the problem.

 Making cities more sustainable is not a question of “If”, but of “how” and “how fast”? 

It is definitely a challenge, but one that is not hopeless, because of the extraordinary potential of cities to combat climate change successfully. This can be seen more and more frequently in the work of startup accelerator URBAN-X, founded by MINI in 2016, which is working on solutions to achieve greater sustainability in urban life. “Climate change has more and more become a central aspect of what we look at when we look for startups,” says Design Director Johan Schwind during our conversation at the URBAN-X headquarters in Brooklyn, New York.

Employees working at the URBAN-X offices.
For the employees working at the desk: The Urban-X offices are located in Newlab, a community of experts and innovators applying transformative technology to solve the world’s biggest challenges, which itself is located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
If we consider how many people not only live but also work there, however, the impact of cities turns out to be comparatively low. “On a per-capita basis, the level of greenhouse gas emissions is significantly lower in a city than in a suburban or rural environment,” says Schwind. URBAN-X supports pioneers and initiatives developing ideas for environmentally friendly technologies. These startups do everything from reimagining urban mobility to helping individuals and communities eliminate environmentally unfriendly practices from the everyday urban lives. Even though URBAN-X was founded by MINI, it is not simply focused on what happens on the roads of a city. Sustainability is a complex goal, of which mobility is just one small, but essential part. To truly offer cities a way forward different solutions need to be found that affect all aspects of urban living.
URBAN-X Design Director Johan Schwind, and images of the URBAN-X offices.
Design Director Johan Schwind is in charge of ideas at URBAN-X.

Here are three promising startups that are doing essential work. You will be able to learn more about in the future, where we really go into the details of how an URBAN-X startup makes its way from ideal to idea to execution.

Two images featuring Shabazz Stuart, founder of the startup Oonee, that creates theft-proof spaces for e-bikes and scooters in New York.
Oonee founder Shabazz Stuart creates theft-proof spaces for e-bikes and scooters in New York.

The first is Oonee, a New York City startup dedicated to expanding micromobility with bicycles and scooters through easy bike parking and bike storage. “Here in New York, about 50 per cent of all our car trips are under three miles,” says Oonee founder Shabazz Stuart, “so that’s perfect for bikes.” But the fact is that New Yorkers only use a bike for one per cent of their journeys. To help change this, Oonee develops modular bike garages or pods. These pods are electronically secured and – thanks to advertising panels on the module – free of charge to regular users. “If we migrate half of those car trips over to bike trips, we’re looking at a 50-per-cent reduction in urban emissions,” says Stuart. 

You can learn more about this initiative in the future, right here on MINI.com

Promoting new ideas to benefit the urban environment comes naturally to MINI, whose original model was famously developed as a compact and fuel-efficient response to the energy crisis in 1959. “We are one of the few programmes that offer dedicated support to startups that want to work with difficult and hard technology, especially when they venture into complex technologies,” says Schwind. “But the basic concept of MINI means it is already ideal for urban environments, to say nothing of our experience with design and technical solutions.” It goes without saying that they have to be commercially viable. If you look at Copenhagen, you can see that it is possible to reconcile urban climate protection with economic growth, in that Denmark’s capital has brought down its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent since 1990, yet at the same time increased its economic output by 50 per cent.

Two images featuring Wenbo Shi, CEO of Singularity, an app that will enable users to define only renewables as their source of electricity.
Singularity CEO Wenbo Shi and his staff are developing an app that will enable users to define only renewables as their source of electricity.

Another startup in the URBAN-X portfolio, the US company Singularity, is working on ways to let consumers control and influence their own individual emissions. It is developing technologies with which electricity customers can use software to monitor, in real time, where their electricity is coming from and how much carbon dioxide is emitted in its production. And as they say, knowing is half the battle. 

So far, MINI has supported more than 70 startups with URBAN-X. The young companies are given 20 weeks’ access to an expert group of engineers, designers and programmers who can help them to get their products and services ready for market, and also to find investors. Every year, over 1000 companies apply for a place on the URBAN-X programme – only 1.5 per cent of them are accepted.

Images of Chantal Emmanuel, co-founder of LimeLoop co-founder, a startup aimed at developing sustainable, re-usable packaging.
Campaigning against the throwaway mentality: LimeLoop co-founder, Chantal Emmanuel (left) is working on the development of sustainable packaging that can be used up to 200 times – and doesn’t end up in the bin after one single trip.

One startup that recently made it was LimeLoop. This young enterprise wants to drive the circular economy for packaging materials, to combat the vast quantities that currently arise from online shopping. According to one survey, Amazon alone generated some 211 million kilos of plastic waste in 2019 – including enough air cushions to be wrapped 500 times around the planet. But the allegedly more environmentally friendly paper packaging types also have their price. LimeLoop has calculated that some three billion trees are felled every year to provide the material for boxes. The startup’s idea was to create reusable packaging made of recycled vinyl and cotton for use not just once, but a good 200 times over. But there is more to their efforts, which you will be able to learn about on MINI.com in the future.

A decorative element at the URBAN-X offices.
Projections show that, by the year 2050, there will be an average of nearly six million people worldwide moving from the country to the city every month. Not even the pandemic will reverse this trend, says Schwind. “It’s great that more people can work remotely, but that doesn’t mean everyone can move out of the city.” For Schwind, who grew up on a farm, cities are places of creativity and innovation. “Urban living means being exposed to different perspectives, new ideas, being close to where culture is happening. These aspects will hold strong and post-COVID will continue to bring people to cities.” For Schwind, this spells hope, especially as regards climate change. “I think we live in a world where we are hyper-aware of the negative things just because of how connected we are. I think sometimes it feels overwhelming and we forget about all the good things that are happening at the same time.” Such as? “People are reacting to forest fires, floods and other natural disasters by dedicating a big chunk of their life to trying to fix this and find a solution. The start-ups we found are living proof of that.”
A close-up of an element of the URBAN-X offices.

About Urban-X.

URBAN-X is the platform for founders reimagining city life. Built by MINI in 2016, URBAN-X partners with startups to build bold technology solutions for a sustainable planet. Breaking from traditional startup programme moulds, URBAN-X provides entrepreneurs with individualised and tailored support that accelerates growth and builds successful businesses for the next generation of climate- and city-focused innovators. Core to its platform, URBAN-X offers world-class engineering and design resources, industry-leading investment capital, a global network of investors, policymakers, corporate strategies and end-customers, and premier educational content for a global network of founders. 
Over the course of 20 weeks, they offer a custom-tailored journey to get to ‘product-market fit’ through an intensive and immersive programme, both virtually and at our headquarters in New Lab in Brooklyn, New York.  URBAN-X works closely with BMW iVentures and BMW Startup Garage to connect teams to internal resources where appropriate. If you want to learn more about URBAN-X, click here. You can also find URBAN-X on Twitter & Instagram at @urbanxaccel and on Facebook.