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Making Technology Work for People: A Playbook for Smart Cities

The convergence of digitization, globalization, and demographic change is redefining how people live, work and travel – especially in and around cities.

By making their cities “smarter”—not just in using technology, but in all that they do—mayors and other urban leaders hope to improve quality of life, while boosting economic growth and competitiveness. But without a clear compass, cities run the risk of falling short of their aspirations. The key challenge for city leaders is incorporating the perspectives of various stakeholders into a properly staged roadmap that puts people at the center.

Together with a group of global companies, Mastercard recently commissioned ESI ThoughtLab to conduct an in-depth benchmarking survey of government leaders in 136 cities around the world – to understand their perspectives, practices, and performance results around the smart city concept.

While cities come in all shapes and sizes and are at different places in their journeys – they often share similar issues, such as the challenge to prioritize growing expectations and limited resources.

The report “Smarter Cities 2025 – Building a sustainable business and financing plan”–which also draws on interviews with business leaders and city residents – identifies 10 key points that should be part of anyone’s playbook who wants to make their city more connected and more responsive:

1. Start with a vision for your city. Without the right vision, plans, and resources in place, smart city programs will not reach their full potential—a piecemeal approach is all too common, and will prove ineffective in the long run. To develop this vision and roadmap, city governments need to start by assessing and considering the needs and aspirations of their single most important constituent – their people.

2. Focus on a strong foundation. The first priority for city leaders should be to lay down foundational pillars, such as governance, talent, and funding which are vital to long-term smart city success.

3. Put in place scalable digital infrastructure. Smart cities run on fast and reliable fixed and mobile broadband, and public WiFi. City governments should consider investing in citywide data platforms and scalable systems — as well as the processes and standards that need to go along with it. Avoid making cybersecurity an afterthought by incorporating it in every step of your digital transformation plan.

4. Keep pace with advanced technologies. With digital expectations of businesses and citizens continuing to evolve, cities will need to embrace technologies like biometrics, AI, and geo-location. Adopting these technologies is not only key to smart city initiatives, but to meeting the needs of constituents, and attracting the talent to advance your digital agenda.

5. Capitalize on data analytics. Data analytics are the rocket fuel for smart city transformation. Cities need to ensure they are gathering, analyzing, and integrating a wide array of data insights – and to do so in a responsible manner. In particular, cities need to implement proper safeguards to ensure citizen privacy and appropriate use.

6. Develop digital ecosystems. Smart city leaders realize they cannot do everything on their own, nor is it expedient or cost-effective. The best approach is to find the right mix of internal teams and an external ecosystem of public and private sector partners. Building academic partnerships can help accelerate your innovation plans and give your city greater access to talent. Explore creative ecosystem approaches, such as revenue sharing, concession financing, and as-a-service models.

7. Pay attention to budget. A few scattershot investments are not enough to make important progress in becoming a smart city—experience shows that it’s vital to allocate sufficient funding from both the operating and capital budget. To supplement public budgets and bond issues, city leader should consider using new funding tools, including social impact bonds and pay-for-success agreements.

8. Invest in your city’s multi-modal future. With populations growing and congestion increasing, cities will need to diversify modes of transportation to include ride-sharing, car-sharing, bike sharing, and eventually autonomous vehicles. At the same time, smart cities should continue to maintain the efficiency and reliability of their public transportation to ensure it stays competitive with private-sector mobility options. Smart use of data and real-time interaction can boost the performance of traditional transportation modes and raise ridership.

9. Move to digital payments. Smart cities are moving to a less-cash future: digital payments systems are essential for online and mobile access to city services, efficient mobility, and secure government transactions, and offer greater efficiency and improved record keeping, as well as reductions in theft and shadow economy activity.

10. Learn from the leaders. Cities should take inspiration from how leaders approach their smart city investments—starting with a holistic roadmap and first getting the essentials in order, including a sound governance structure, sufficient financing, and incentives in place to attract talented workers.

After getting their foundations in place, cities are able to realize a “smart city dividend” through investments in environment, mobility, and public health.

It’s important to keep in mind that ‘smart’ should never be an end in itself – it should be a means to making our cities more livable and setting them on a path to more inclusive growth.

In facing similar challenges, cities have the opportunity to learn from each other – and to establish common goals and standards. Digital solutions make it possible for cities to make the journey to progress together.

About the Author

Sapan Shah, Mastercard

Sapan is responsible for driving MasterCard’s Smart City solutions across areas such as mobility, data and identity. Sapan and his team partner with cities, public bodies and private sector organisations to utilise MasterCard’s network, reach and capabilities to address the challenges cities face and deliver improvements in quality of life for citizens.

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