There is revelation – surprise – dazzle, and, if you didn’t know better, you might say there’s even magic in what Greg Sauter’s company achieves. But he’s not the ringmaster of a circus and his customers aren’t thrill-seekers, though they certainly experience exuberating catapults.
Greg is founder of the nonprofit Smart City Works, a new class of business accelerator that identifies and speeds commercialization of the most promising ideas and companies focused on improving how we design, build, and operate civil infrastructure. Its twice-yearly “incubator” cohort sessions fuse discovery, consulting, workshopping, and access to virtually anything and anyone that will get the best technology solutions into the hands of infrastructure managers and contractors.
Today’s interview with Greg may get your adrenaline racing, but the real high will happen when he speaks live in November at the Infrastructure Imperative conference at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel. This is the must-attend “secret lab” where public works and construction professionals will receive tangible solutions for their toughest challenges. Click today to review the full agenda, speaker lineup, the Justification Letter for your boss, and to register. Best seats in the house are selling quickly.
Concrete Construction (CC): What are some of the most exciting technologies you’ve worked with recently?
Greg: The first is augmented reality. One of our companies is changing the way we envision project design/engineering or implementation – the ability to see things where they're going to be in the real space.
It's one thing to see renderings on paper or BIM files; it's another to walk outside and be able to see what that's really going to look like standing there. What the different facade treatments and different signage look like ... and then to be able to walk yourself into the building and see what it's going to look like inside.
CC: That’s mind-blowing. Like something out of “Star Trek.”
Greg: It is. And it's coming to reality. That's what's so cool. These things are starting to make their way into the actual designing process now!
Another company created a design tool that lets you look at all the options for a building or whole city block – impermeable versus permeable surface, amount of paint surface, concrete surfaces versus green surfaces, material choices, heating, ventilation and cooling fixtures, the list goes on and on – and make choices in real time without sending them all back to engineering for the financial and sustainability impacts.
Several companies are helping change the way we finance infrastructure. One is using cryptocurrency to reduce the cost of capital, and well on the way to becoming the first Federal Communications Commission-approved cryptocurrency company. Another is using crowd-funding techniques to pay for infrastructure by engaging with local communities and individuals.
Another has turned their satellite talents to parking, which seems rather mundane until you think about the future of the Smart City and the need to manage what they call the curb side – all of the Ubers and Lyfts and delivery trucks that are pulling up to the curb side. How do you manage that? How do you monetize that? Their parking app does wireless parking services and monitoring in things like parking lots and parking decks, but it can do many other things beyond parking, too.
CC: Why do companies come to Smart City Works in the first place?
Greg: Great ideas were coming out of Silicon Valley, but many were failing because innovators didn't know what it takes to actually build a company – create a team, fundraise, create a go-to-market strategy.
Accelerators are an extension on the incubator concept as well, which is a safe atmosphere for companies to come and work, at reasonable costs, and typically with other innovators or entrepreneurs around. It provides a very creative environment, which gives people an opportunity to get some runway and build their business.
CC: What tends to be the biggest problem when these innovators arrive at your door?
Greg: Communication. Everybody comes in thinking they know how to express their unique value proposition, but in so many cases they don't. They see it through their lens instead of the lens of customers or stakeholders.
Sometimes the value proposition isn’t what they thought it was. We’ve had companies that came in and actually pivoted and changed the focus of their business because they have a better understanding where they fit into the engineering and construction value chain, which is very complex.
CC: In your experience, where do the best ideas come from?
Greg: All over the place. Many times it's driven by those who’ve lived through the less-than-perfect design, engineering, and construction processes we have today and said, “Hey, I know we can do this better.” And they set out to do that.
CC: What are the challenges of getting new ideas activated in the infrastructure and building industry?
Greg: Consumer markets are easy to break into; they have low overhead and easy access to clients. Infrastructure is the opposite. It's a space that hasn’t been very open to new technologies. It’s very parochial, very regulated. And it's very fractured, with a very complex stakeholder system. So it's a very challenging industry to get traction in.
We go a step beyond the traditional accelerator and spend a lot of time getting companies into pilots and establishing relationships with municipalities and counties to get their products validated and get traction in the market.
I just got an e-mail from one of our CEOs who’s starting his first project in the U.S. It could change the way we build roads – using all recycled materials, making everything less expensive, more efficient, more effective. The roads will last longer. He's got two pilot sections that he literally started this week. That came through the work here with us.
CC: Why do the men and women of the design and building industries need to hear what you have to say at the Infrastructure Imperative event in November?
Greg: Technology is changing how we do what we do – how we envision, how we design, how we engineer, how we construct, and how we operate.
People always say, “What does the future look like? What's changing within our industry, and what does the Smart City look like?” You can provide a vision of what somebody thinks it will be like 20 years from now, but the building blocks toward those changes are taking place in the industry right now.
We are challenging the status quo. People will have their minds opened to the potential of what could be.