Twenty years ago, the idea of the smart city was a fantasy about a future when all urban services would be connected, automated and accessible to all. Today, many cities are preparing for it as a necessity.
Urbanisation is increasing at such a rapid rate that 61% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030, according to Unesco. At last week’s World Cities Summit in Singapore, an overriding message was that most cities are utterly unprepared for this.
“There isn’t a single city in the world that is ready to deal with the growth we are facing,” said Hany Fam, executive vice-president for enterprise partnerships at Mastercard. Speaking in a panel on “Better Cities with Smart Technology”, he warned: “Time is not on our side.”
Most cities, he said, attempted solutions that had never been tried before, and were often doomed to failure.
“When a city starts to plan for this future, it often starts from zero, as if it’s the first time the challenge has ever been faced. A city today should start its investigation where the last best solution was developed. That will lead to different kinds of responses, in particular public-private partnerships.
“We see all too often city authorities only wanting to do something different. We see all too often the private sector only wanting to sell goods and services to make quarterly numbers. We need to think how we can unlock value in existing infrastructure.”
He gave the example of Transport For London, which underwent minor modifications, reusing existing components, to turn the Oyster travel card into a contactless payment system. It resulted in savings of £100-million (R1.7-billion) a year and a boom in usage.
Frank Rijsberman, director-general of the intergovernmental Global Green Growth Institute, elaborated: “There are lots of models out there, but we need more partnerships. I don’t think there’s a silver bullet, but government must have an open mind to encourage innovation.”
The session also featured Miguel Gamino, appointed Mastercard’s head of global cities in May after serving as chief information officer of the City of New York for two years. “City mayors are thinking more about the people they serve, and technology needs to serve those people,” he said.
His New York role, he told Business Times, was focused on using technology to do something meaningful for the disadvantaged. “The focus was on making technology a tool for inclusion and equity. Technology should make every city more equitable, more inclusive, more fair, giving people access to participation, and to the prosperity of a city moving forward.”
Gamino was in South Africa this week to meet city and business leaders. Part of his mission was to promote City Possible, a Mastercard smart cities model for public-private partnerships.
Ultimately, his message was the same as the one that emerged from the Smart Cities Summit: “Developing cities in emerging economies can learn from and build on progress already made. If they are properly connected and properly set up to share, they can take advantage of progress made by other cities around the world.”
Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter @art2gee and on YouTube
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