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Revolution AI: Carmakers backing smart cities projects — with Canadian smarts

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When BMW North America put out a call to would-be innovators around the world for its MINI-funded Urban-X smart city accelerator program in Brooklyn, N.Y., Gabe Batstone, CEO and founder of Ottawa-based Contextere was eager to get on board. It was in fact the only Canadian company to be accepted into the program’s most recent cohort.

Contextere is an IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) software company focused on enabling a connected workforce. It uses artificial intelligence to develop an intelligent personal agent that can provide insight on the job.

“About a year and a half ago we began pondering the question ‘Why has the technology revolution left behind people in blue collar professions?’,” Batstone says. “I thought we could weave crazy cool technology to answer that and make it all relevant for the people who maintain and install equipment. We believed we could transform the future of work.”

Urban-X is part of a new design academy founded by MINI’s venture accelerator, and brings together forward thinking startups to explore innovations in the context of smart cities, urban hyper-growth and society-scale changes. Which begs the question “How would an AI-based IIoT technology designed for the defence, aerospace and oil and gas industries fit into the urban landscape?”

How would an AI-based Industrial Internet of Things
technology designed for the defence, aerospace and
oil and gas industries fit into the urban landscape?
Batstone acknowledges that the smart cities market was certainly not his original plan for the company. But it makes perfect sense, since Contextere’s software combines AI with augmented reality and big data to deliver real-time cues to blue collar workers via phone or wearable devices to increase productivity and safety. “One in four times, equipment repair jobs don’t get done,” he says. “For a company with 25,000 workers, that’s a huge business problem.”

Apply those numbers to a metropolis like New York City, home to tens of thousands of workers who inspect bridges, maintain pipelines, operate sewage plants and myriad other on-site functions. “Now we are seeing how we can improve life in cities in terms of technology and design and expand into new markets,” Batstone says. “New York is a great test bed simply because of the scale of the city. And Urban-X is a great creative space, where we get to work with each other and with MINI engineers. What’s relevant to us here is the user experience and how people, hardware and software interact.”

The most valuable lesson he is learning involves different approaches to marketing, from people who have nothing to do with the business he is in. “The most meaningful thing is that we can look at blue collar as a business as opposed to a vertical and see how others are approaching it. We’re seeing different ways of working with wearables and how we can get workers off their phones and allow them to work so their hands and eyes are free to do the job. And we are even coming up with ideas we didn’t think of before.”

Micah Kotch, managing director of Urban-X, says the project is very much focused on the future of cities. “As an advocate for startups for the future of our city, we are agnostic in terms of whether the solution is IoT, software or algorithm development. What we look for are differentiated solutions that can help lead us to a brighter urban future.”

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