By Data-Smart City Solutions • March 11, 2015

This is Part III of Data-Smart City Solutions’ New Faces of Public-Private Collaboration series.

The city bench has a long history as an icon of civic life. It’s a public space that’s open to any resident who wants to sit down to socialize, eat, relax, or recharge — and now, if a new startup’s product can gain traction, recharge their phone.

It’s been nearly a year since Sandra Richter and her two business partners Jutta Friedrichs and Nan Zhao founded Changing Environments, the startup that makes smart, solar-powered benches called Soofas. In that time, they’ve partnered with the city of Boston to install 12 beta-version Soofas in public spaces across the city, allowing residents to charge their phones on the go and enabling the startup to collect valuable sensor data on usage and performance. (Thanks to funding from Cisco Systems, that partnership came free of charge for the city).

Sandra Richter
Sandra Richter (Photo/Changing Environments)

Now, Changing Environments is negotiating with about 10 city clients on agreements to install varying numbers of Soofas in urban spaces across the country, and is working with the city of Cambridge, Mass., to roll out a research and development platform. The startup also recently raised $1 million in a round of seed funding.

In Richter’s work as a co-founder of one of a growing number of government-focused tech startups, she has already gained a wealth of perspective on the challenges and opportunities facing the sector. Data-Smart City Solutions got on the phone with her to get her take on how best to navigate the often delicate relationship between startups and local governments.

Data-Smart City Solutions: How do you think this new wave of civic tech-focused startups is changing the way governments serve their citizens?

Sandra Richter: In working with governments, we’ve seen that there’s always an ideas sponsor — advocates within the system who love what we’re doing and then they go and they sell it to their own organizations. I think that will happen more and more. A lot of government officials, as far as I can tell, are younger, they’re closer to technology, they are interested in making the city a place where there’s truly connectivity and communication between the citizens and the government officials. We have so many tools today where it’s actually possible to engage, which enable us and empower us to not only guess what citizens want, but actually know and act on that.

What have you found to be the biggest challenge in working with cities and local governments?

The people who are innovative and active are often not the ones that have the power and the money.

What advice would you give to a local government official that wants to work effectively with emerging startups?

Start thinking about the city more in terms of an urban test kitchen. Don’t be afraid of prototyping together with startups; see them as partners and not as vendors because there is a powerful learning-and-experience exchange to be made between those who can move quickly and those that are more tied to regulations. And so I think having that exchange can really can help to rapidly test and deploy technology. And technology is very fast-moving, so it’s not like you can think about it for four years before you implement something — by then, the technology is probably not even up to date any more.

Our cities need experiments, and our cities are always a reflection of society and the citizen. We live in a very fast-paced world, we live in a world full of technology and data. And so I would encourage every government official to take part in the process because it’s going to happen nevertheless.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.