What is a smart city and how does one plan for it?

Mastercard Smart city
Image credit: Future Publishing (Image credit: Future)

Cities around the globe are expected to continue to attract an ever increasing portion of the world’s population. By 2050, more than two thirds of us will live in urban areas according to a 2018 research from the United Nations. By 2030, the world is projected to have 43 megacities with more than 10 million inhabitants, most of them in developing regions. To tackle the long list of challenges that such a massive influx of population brings, the concept of smart cities was brought in. 

Mastercard, best known for its credit card services, has a not-so-obvious interest in getting smart cities off the ground. We interviewed Mastercard’s Vice President of Global Cities, Sapan Shah, about a project the financial giant has been working on, ahead of the launch of the Emergent City installation at Goodwood’s Festival of Speed.

Let’s start by a less-than-smart question. What is a smart city and how does one plan for one?

Smart City was a term coined to mean cities that use technology and automation to provide better infrastructure. We think about this a bit differently at Mastercard. Use of any new technology needs to ensure that we bring the entire community along to create inclusive, connected and dynamic places to live. Hence instead of ‘smart cities’, we talk about ‘connected and inclusive cities’, which have a singular goal of improving the quality of life for all their residents and visitors.

The potential of cities to be the next driver of global progress is greater than ever, but so is the need for cities to focus on what it means to be connected and inclusive.

It means improving efficiency so that local governments provide better service to their citizens. It also means promoting economic growth and development that proactively seeks to address the most serious needs of the city, the distressed areas and those communities at risk of being left behind. And it means ensuring inclusion by enabling greater access to the networks that people  need to have productive and meaningful lives, which includes financial security.

Why did Mastercard launch the City Possible Initiative? What’s in it for them?

When one thinks about Mastercard, the global power of our network and ability to create trusted relationships between total strangers halfway around the world comes to mind. Anyone carrying a Mastercard from any city in the world can go to any retailer, anywhere in the world and transact with them.

Much of what we are doing through City Possible is focused on applying our technology, our understanding of networks and markets, and our capacity to organize ecosystems to partner with cities, mayors and city managers.

By organizing this network of global cities, businesses, non-profit and academia and by developing solutions together, we can solve many common urban challenges. This approach also speaks specifically to our commitment to being a force for good in the world and to ‘doing well by doing good’.

More broadly, if we can help cities mayors accomplish the objective of driving prosperity in their communities, then people will have better jobs, live better lives and will be more likely to participate in the formal financial economy. This in turn helps our core business grow.

Aren’t smart cities already a reality? What is it that Mastercard is proposing that’s not already on the decks?

The term smart city suggests a destination, a case of either you are or you aren’t and for us, it’s not that black and white. Through our work with mayors and city leaders, we recognize that cities are all at different stages on their journey to becoming more connected and more inclusive.

What we’re also seeing is that cities across the world have more in common than we think. Despite location or language, cities around the world are all grappling with the same societal, political and environmental issues that come with accelerated urbanization. Yet all too often cities are operating in isolation and reinventing the wheel.

We believe that collaboration is the cities’ untapped superpower. Cities will only accomplish acceleration and efficiency at scale by building on each other’s progress, in partnership with the private sector and academia. The vision for City Possible is to facilitate this space for collaboration, to provide a path to scaleable solutions, and ultimately to make tech work for people.

Mastercard is uniquely positioned to be the orchestrator of this ecosystem given our core company strengths: creating partnerships, developing leading edge technology and providing critical insights.

Emergent City is just an artistic installation at the moment, what plans are there to take it from the abstract to reality.

City Possible is very much a reality today. Launched at the Smart City Expo in Barcelona in November 2018, already more than 25 cities have joined the network and that number is growing rapidly, with participants representing all continents and city sizes. Earlier this year, Belfast became the first UK city to join the global network.

Through the global network, we are engaging member cities on a wide range of relevant topics from urban mobility to use of data in policy making and together solving some of their most pressing problems.  For example, cities like Dublin and London are testing an Economic Development Platform, using Mastercard data analytics to assess the city’s economic health at a hyper-local level and make more informed policy decisions linked to tourism, events and retail.

‘The Emergent City’ exhibition at the Goodwood FOS Future Lab is a multi-layered installation that explores the concept of the city of the future. We have collaborated with Stanza to  ask people to re-imagine the possibilities for cities and urban centers. The integration of open-data sources, sensor networks and media feeds in the installation demonstrates how cities have become inter-connected hubs of information, innovation and communication.

In many ways ‘The Emergent City’ embodies the philosophy of City Possible, as it provides a space for people to interact, collaborate and share best practice and consider the future of cities in new ways to make them more inclusive, connected and dynamic places to live.

What are the biggest challenges, in your view, when it comes to the planning of smart cities?

One of the key challenges is the complexity of various city-systems. Given the complexity, often the solutions are siloed in nature where interventions by the public and private sectors address issues in isolation or in a short-term form.

The other key challenge for cities has been the lack of ability to learn from the experiences of other cities. Each city ends up making the same sort of mistakes, which hinders rapid progress.

Industry players and vendors have also traditionally led the urban innovation landscape (and the development of new solutions) and these solutions haven’t always helped cities achieve their goals. That is changing now with cities leading the innovation process and working hand in hand with industry partners to design solutions that have citizen’s needs at their heart.

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.