Smog Wawelski: Kraków turns to the startup scene to kill the modern beast

While the early beginnings of the city of Kraków are steeped in the legend of Smok Wawelski (the Wawel Dragon), the city is currently fighting a different kind of beast: Smog Wawelski hovers over the city as a thick cloud of polluted air. Cracovians need a new cunning trick to slay the monster. During the Smogathon 2016 (Nov.28), startups were summoned to pitch their ideas on how to tackle the problem and find what could become the tech-version of the sheep and sulphur. This time the reward was not the warm hand of a princess, but 100,000 PLN in hard cash.

Smog has been an issue in Kraków for years. That late afternoon haze descending over the city every now and then is nothing pretty. While this might hardly be an issue when visiting the city for a couple of days, it is when you actually live here. The level of pollutants in the air in and around the city sometimes exceeds every norm and increases the chance of respiratory problems and lung diseases, making it one of the most unhealthy European cities to live in. In 2011 Kraków ranked third on the average number of days when particulate concentrations exceeded the E.U. target. Not only the World Health Organization has been voicing its concerns about the air in Poland, but also Cracovians, who are ready to take action.

Technology bootcamp

The Smogathon is a grassroots initiative in Krakow, initiated by self-proclaimed ‘startupaholic’ Anna Rys and her brother Maciej (both on the left, picture below). “One day the smog in the city was so bad, we could feel it in our throats,” Anne says. “So we started thinking about what we could do against it.” The link to the vibrant technology startup-scene in the city was easily made. Last week the second Smogathon took place in town, calling startups and companies to use technology to battle smog.

Smogathon 2016

The name of the event suggests it is a hackathon, where participants get a limited amount of time to come up with a solution for a problem. That name is already outdated. The Smogathon 2016 was more of a so-called bootcamp, where experts and mentors shared advice, provided feedback and awarded points during a 24 hour gathering in Krakow’s tech-hub Park Technologyzny. The 10 business ideas that gathered the most points over the weekend made it to the final at Kijow Centrum, where they pitched their ideas to a jury of professionals. The best one went home with 100.000 PLN to further develop their product.

Painting a grim picture

A lot of the offered solutions from the finalists fall in the category of ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t change it.’ Options offered on stage ranged from drones fitted with air quality sensors to portable sensors that will alert you once you enter a polluted area. Some of the measuring solutions are already in place, like the small and affordable sensors that the Kraków-based startup, Airly, offers. During the last couple of weeks they’ve been busy handing out their equipment and painting a grim picture of the pollution in the city. Airly came into being during last year’s Smogathon when a couple of attendees paired up and thought of a real-time pollution map in Kraków. A year later, they’re a blossoming startup with a net worth of over a million Euros.

Origins Technology, also one of the finalists, is already far beyond that. The company came in from Beijing to present their product, a low-cost internet-connected air quality sensor. They’ve clearly learned a thing or two about building equipment and tracking smog. Liam Bates, who calls himself the Chief Excitement Officer of Origins, took the stage with confidence, unafraid to take stabs at the competition in the room: “We’re the only ones here that build our own measurement equipment. In fact, some of the finalists here even use our hardware.” Origins claims to have over 10.000 sensors deployed in Beijing, giving them an accurate picture of the pollution at any given moment. “Last year air pollution in Beijing was reduced by 17 percent”, he says. “For instance, our sensors managed to trace big clouds of pollution back to a factory way outside the city. This allowed the government to take action.” Bates flew in to Krakow to present his product but also to get more acquainted with the local case. Smog is a different beast, everywhere it strikes. “If there’s a big source of pollution, like a factory, it is easy to take action,” says Bates. “It is a lot harder to find and stop people burning trash to keep their houses warm.”

Burning coal or even worse

This is a particular problem for the air in Krakow and Poland in general. With the Polish winter coming in, keeping a warm house can come at a high expense – which is why people resort to burning cheap, polluting coal, or worse. A government-funded program to swap all the coal (or trash) burning heaters for newer and cleaner ones, has been a painfully slow and inefficient process. Other initiatives are the deployment of air quality sensors, and more recently the use of drones to identify pollution hotspots. Yet the urgency of the problem begs the question: shouldn’t the government be all over this? They are present during the Smogathon, where the logos of several governmental branches are featured in the Smogathon keynote, and some of the seats of the jury are filled with members from both the European Commission and the Malopolska region. “Sure, the government helps out,” says Rys unconvincingly. “They’ve provided the food for instance,” pointing at the tables full of fingerfood. But government-backed actions that actually make us breathe easier are hard to find.

Moss to the rescue

Despite the heavy emphasis on measuring pollution, it was a moss-plant that took the Smogathon prize money. The made-in-Germany CityTree is literally a wall of moss that serves as an air filter for cities. According to the company, a 3-meter-square unit cleans as much air as 275 trees at only a fraction of the cost. It is equipped with sensors to provide data about the air quality and is self-sustainable. No wonder they’ve already sold their smart-moss to a handful of European cities. It is also no surprise that the jury of Smogathon liked the idea and rewarded them with the first prize and the cash, making CEO Dénes Honus a very happy man. “We’re not here for the money; it is mostly the recognition that is helping us,” he said after the event. “I’ve just set up a meeting at the office of the mayor of Kraków. Without winning this Smogathon, that door would probably still be closed.”

The CityTree wall of moss. Coming to Cracow soon?
The CityTree wall of moss. Coming to Kraków soon?

So keep an eye out for smart-moss, it might just show up in town. Yet as appealing as online, air-cleaning, self-sustaining moss might sound, there is some skepticism among some contenders. “It’s a cool idea,” says Liam Bates. “But an this stage it won’t do anything for the overall air-quality. If this would help, we would also see less pollution in parks or forests around cities. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that.” It’s unlikely that a sole initiative like the Smogathon 2016 would rid Kraków of its modern beast, but it might be the next step forward for a city that still has many to take.

Anna and Maciej are already planning ahead. For Smogathon 2017 they promise to go worldwide with preliminary bootcamps in several cities in Asia, America and Europe. The best ideas will be presented in the grand finale in Kraków, which is still the home of Smog Wawelski.

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