Building the European vision of a Smart City
4 January 2021
Tell us about your entrepreneurial journey and why you founded Vivacity Labs
The journey started back in 2011, when I met my cofounders while designing, building and racing a solar-powered car. It was a student-run project, done in our spare time around our degrees – in which we raised £500,000, built a road-legal experimental vehicle which was 50x more efficient than a normal car, and took 20 people to Australia to race it. While that project didn’t lead to the success we wanted, it gave us the entrepreneurial bug, and so after a couple of years in “normal” jobs we got itchy feet, which led to us founding Vivacity.
Without that solar car project, we simply wouldn’t be here today – not just because we wouldn’t have met, but because we wouldn’t have learnt the critical lessons needed to get a company off the ground. Learning those lessons wasn’t always easy (we left £10,000+ of solar panels in dust on the road after an 85kmph crash!*), but they were formative.
* The driver walked away from the accident, without significant injuries
What is the mission for Vivacity over the next five years?
Our goal is to build the European or British vision of a Smart City. We don’t want the Chinese vision of a Smart City based on the surveillance state, where every action is monitored to check compliance. Nor do we want the American version of a Smart City, with capitalism running riot and advertising everywhere based on ever-deeper information about your life. Our ambition is to establish a different vision – one which is citizen-centric, based on privacy-by-design principles, helping us to optimise cities for citizens without invading their lives.
To achieve that, we’re helping cities to introduce privacy-first technologies into the way they run transport networks. Through modernising one of the most pervasive components of a city, we will drive the evolution towards this citizen-centric future.
What makes Vivacity stand out from your competitors?
Today, the fundamental difference is the sophistication and maturity of the technology we are bringing to bear. We started working with AI techniques in this space back in 2015, and have won a wide range of innovation prizes in the industry, demonstrated AI superiority in a number of trials with leading clients like TfL, and are now installed in 35 cities across the UK.
However, it can’t just be about technology. I’m really proud of our product and customer success teams for the work they’ve done to direct our evolution towards services that clients genuinely treasure – when we started getting quotes like “Vivacity are a joy to work with” from clients I knew that we were heading in the right direction.
What have you leaned on to navigate 2020?
I think the most important thing for all of us this year has been to be human. The world is imploding around us, but as leaders we need to support our staff in every way we can. This includes complete transparency in the way that the company is functioning; over-communication about where we are at and what is coming down the pipeline; and building new systems and processes to understand each other better.
We’ve found that one of the hardest things in lockdown is knowing where other team members are mentally, in terms of workload, life stress, and priorities. The informal channels of communication have been closed, so we need to open more formal ones in order to replace them, which isn’t always easy to do.
What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company in the current climate?
I think in many ways the world is more global than it once was. Talking to clients abroad is now trivial, because everyone is using video calls for all communications, so it doesn’t matter where you are based.
However, I think that might tempt people into making the wrong decisions about how to start your proposition. In my eyes, the only way to start a new venture is to focus on one single, narrow problem, and solve that better than anyone else. The chances of that problem being identical in many countries is very slim – there are always local adaptations that are needed. So my advice would be focus, focus, focus, and don’t let this time of opportunity distract you from what you need to do to win in your core, original market.
What invention do you hope to see in your lifetime?
Call me a sci-fi geek, but I would love to see some of the concepts around alternative methods of travelling into space come to life. Space elevators, skyhooks; something that doesn’t involve burning 90% of your mass to escape gravity. I think we as a race need to escape the Earth in a more permanent way at some point, and over the course of the 21st century, I think we need new ways to travel in order to economically set up colonies elsewhere over the 22nd century.
Having said that, there is still a gigantic amount we need to do to solve climate change before we invest heavily in that. I don’t believe that climate change will be solved via a single solution in the same way (although nuclear fusion would certainly help), but I do think that the millions of partial solutions that come over the next century will be super exciting – and a great place to start the next generation of businesses.
To what do you attribute your success?
For me, the most important contributor to success has been building the right team. It’s about having absolute trust supported by complementary skills in the founding team, along with a very large dose of enthusiasm and drive. It’s about having a consistent set of values across the founders to attract and retain the right talent as you scale. It’s about being as ruthless in your support of those values as you are in the pursuit of your grand vision – because only by building the right team around you can you ever hope to hit that vision.