The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) hosted a Global Call for Innovative Solutions in Cleantech and Sustainable Land Management award ceremony in October 2021, celebrating the best innovators from 300 applications worldwide. The event was held in Remscheid, Germany and was broadcast worldwide via livestream.

The goal was to identify and promote:

  • innovative solutions in clean tech and sustainable land management,
  • address the adverse effects of climate change, and
  • contribute to inclusive and sustainable economic development.

The call focused on technologies from four different categories, each vital for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The first category, Decarbonizing growing urban environments, was introduced by one of the category's jurists, Abimbola Olufore, head of UNIDO Investment and Technology Promotion Offices, Nigeria. Olufore set the stage by referencing the growth of her hometown of Lagos, Nigeria.

Local solution for a global problem

Growing cities use a lot of resources as the expand. This is particularly obvious in terms of cities with exponential population growth rates and a growing middle class. Olufore describes this clearly in the case of developing countries like Nigeria and its largest city, Lagos, as an example. The growth comes with associated problems of unemployment, poverty, inadequate health, and poor sanitation, and there needs to be ways of managing the growth more effectively for the benefit of all its citizens.

"With a commensurate widening of social and economic gaps we need concerted efforts in expediting the development of sustainable urban infrastructure and the culture of sustainability rather than the sporadic single green building or equilibrium products as we see today[...] we are asking for rapid organization to be followed through with adequate infrastructure and interventions that will deliver cities with adequate resources such as water, food and energy," says Olufore. "These are the kind of solutions that we want to see in clean energy in sustainable urban development and to be able to meet up with our sustainable development goals for Lagos, as a city, for Africa, as a continent and for the world at large[...] this was a good competition indeed it was and well done by the teams."

Out of 23 global submissions Edmonton-based RUNWITHIT Synthetics (RWI) was chosen as the winner.

RUNWITHIT Synthetics

In a nutshell, RWI Synthetics reimagines cities by recreating them virtually and seeing how the infrastructure and population respond to changes. Their work can be summed up as shining a light on the expensive and frustrating problems that all kinds of complex systems have with unprecedented realities, and then designing and exploring alternatives.

They can add a new technology like hydrogen fuel cells or electric vehicles; they can add climate change events, or model solar weather to see how the city's infrastructure and services respond. What does the introduction of these technologies or events change about the city? Do they disrupt transportation and communication systems? What about the people? How do they respond?

"We can calculate everything from both the perspective of people, and in terms of sustainability," says Myrna Bittner, founder and CEO of RWI Synthetics. "We can determine whether something might increase or decrease the amount of greenhouse gas emissions or how it impacts accessibility for people with decreased mobility for example."

Understanding people and their behaviour

The virtual cities RWI Synthetics creates are advanced scenario-based simulations that bring together interconnected models that are hyper localized to accurately recreate a region's people, their lives and livelihoods, barriers, activities, choices, health and even economics and this is all to measure how a region's people will respond to new technologies, policies, infrastructure even different situations and scenarios.

"Being able to help cities see and realize how some of the most important changes aren't to spend billions more on concrete and infrastructure of new train lines, but to engage under-serviced segments of the population in ways to figure out how to engage them in public transportation with your existing infrastructure," says Bittner.

Global recognition, regional obscurity

We've heard from other innovators that they struggle with local jurisdiction adoption. At times, it can feel like the entrepreneur must go outside to validate their technology. It's a difficult scenario to adequately rationalize, and has many factors like small population size, overly stringent procurement processes, risk aversion, to name a few; but we need to determine whether we want to become a province and a country that more readily adopts home-grown technology.

"I think it's no secret that Canada maybe even isn't the best at consuming its own innovation. We kind of ask innovators to innovate, but then we push them out onto the world stage and say, go prove yourself, and then maybe, just maybe we'll think about it," says Bittner. "We started out with some fantastic early adopters in Edmonton, but very quickly we realized that we needed to take this around the world, and so spent a lot of time on the road, two years for me, where I wasn't home much, and really got that validation in international projects well in hand. We just kind of left the Canadian market and really focused internationally, and now I think word is coming back. The success that we are having internationally has made people in town interested in what we're doing again, and I think realizing just what we're up to."

Update: since the interview with Myrna, RWI Synthetics went on to win Taiwan's top tech Gold Medal Award at MobileHeroes.

Learn more about RWI Synthetics in this CTV news piece and by visiting their website.

Watch the whole UNIDO award ceremony.