How tech-savvy is your city?
Ask this question to the average New York City resident and they’ll probably respond enthusiastically. Home to “Silicon Alley,” NYC has quickly grown into a high-growth technology center that rivals San Francisco in talent and tenacity.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The question wasn’t about the tech companies that have made a city their home, but rather the use of technology by the city itself. Innovation is at the heart of urbanization and smart city growth, and one might be quick to assume that a city like New York would rank fairly high on the municipal IQ scale.
That is, of course, until you consider the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) MetroCard.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the MTA responds to more than 2,500 (often profanity-laced) tweets a day. One of the most popular irate tweet topics? The MetroCard. A thin, magstripe-enabled piece of plastic, the MetroCard has long been a necessary evil for NYC commuters. (Never mind the malfunctioning service kiosks, unknown card balances, and temperamental gates.)
Implemented as a replacement to traditional subway fares, the MetroCard’s swipe technology has caused a laundry-list of issues for riders since its introduction back in the early 1990s. And while the MTA has announced a new contactless system, the implementation will take upwards of six years — and, unlike other examples of transit systems in Japan and the United Kingdom, will still lack a bigger vision for a smarter city-wide system. That’s because it will be missing solid payment infrastructure.
Using payment infrastructure to support intelligent urban development
It’s unsurprising that efficiency and cost-cutting measures come as a result of improved payment infrastructure. But what if Suica, Octopus, Oyster — and yes, even the MetroCard — took things one step further and leveraged the anonymously aggregated data sets collected through their payment infrastructure to further drive urban design? Instead of building infrastructure and services based on estimates and projections, governments could tap into real-world purchasing information in order to improve services.
We know that mapping applications, search engines, and telecom operators have been mining and monetizing user data for years. In fact, many cities have been purchasing data from private companies, such as Citymapper, in order to influence their urban planning. And while this third-party data is useful, imagine what a city could do with its own hyperlocal datasets, mined directly from the usage of actual citizens. Faster, cheaper and more efficient transit, sure, but that would just be the start. Using payment infrastructure as the underpinning for both public and private developments could help ensure more effective application of city funds, private investments, and community-led initiatives.
Payment infrastructure in the U.S. and everywhere else is evolving at a rapid pace. We pay with our smartwatches, merchants accept cards on mobile phones, and everyone is accustomed to the idea of requesting a ride or ordering food while the payment happens in the background. Still, few global metropolises have truly embraced the speed of innovation, and there needs to be a change in strategy.