Given the massive quantities of data flowing in and the pressing environmental issues facing us, how any given ‘smart’ city looks and operates is going to depend on how the basic threesome of citizens, businesses and public authorities fit together. And one of the crucial drivers all these three have in common is the banks, which have a central role to play in so many respects.

Banks and Smart Cities: a shared destiny

With the widespread use of information and communication technologies and the East-West geopolitical upheavals now at work, urbanisation is one of the most pronounced trends in the transformation of our world, although this movement is not always given the prominence it deserves. A United Nations report entitled ‘World Urbanization Prospects’ informs us that today 55% of the earth’s population live in cities, but predicts that by 2050 70% of the then global population of 9 billion people will do so. In western countries, that trend is speeding up and the figure is likely to reach 85%.

Sustainability issues, generation gaps and inequality

The technico-economic challenges facing cities are huge, with multiple issues linked to the financing of capital investments, the shape of the markets, industrial restructuring, future employment, innovation, and the way major cities relate to the wider world. We see for example how a highly active interconnected urban network of entrepreneurial ecosystems is being forged, San Francisco, Seoul, Paris, Shenzhen and Tel Aviv being leading examples. Will this hamper the development of newer cities, or lead to the decline of cities that are less active on the networking front?

Social issues are also key here. We are likely to see new urban lifestyles, growing inequality and, further down the line, types of society that are very different from those we know today. You only need to compare the lifestyle of a young Silicon Valley engineer with that of a retired person in Vienna to see how digital tools and systems can unite people in terms of the way they do things, but may very well divide them as regards cultural norms and generational codes. And at the end of the day, the climate and wider environmental issues are simply inescapable. We are going to need a complete reworking of our economic models and systems, which are to a very large extent a legacy of the last industrial revolution. For each of these major challenges the banks have a key role to play.

The banking sector: traditional partner to cities…

Capital and liquidity flows between socio-economic players underpin human initiatives, financing basic infrastructure and development programmes and thus helping to set up the urban ecosystems we tend to take for granted today. The financial world and its epitome – the bank – are interwoven with all strata of society and all geographical levels: cities, countries, regions and transnational spaces. The banking sector is one of the major counterparts to cities and their component entities, from individual people to companies to the community as a whole. Banks finance, lend, support and also assess; they are closely bound up with progress. They operate at the heart of the urban space and are relationship-enablers in a similar way to the post office, the town hall, the café and the pub.

...central to the digital transformation

In parallel, banks are stepping up their digital capabilities in response to increasing demands in western countries for efficiency and convenience, and for greater inclusiveness and access to financing in the emerging countries. Banks are now seeing the constant advent of new means of financing and risk management – including for instance crowdfunding and a trend towards ‘green financing’ – and are working to integrate them into their existing business models. Moreover, they help their customers and partners to follow the same path, bridging the gap between people’s and companies’ new needs and the technology that can provide solutions. L’Atelier BNP Paribas, by its nature and its mission, is one of the key players in France in this transformation process.

Only one role now for banks in the city?

Banks have a history of being strategic partners to sovereign states, companies, entrepreneurs and private citizens. By definition and by vocation, banks have always played a part in promoting ventures in a variety of fields such as infrastructure development, energy, education and healthcare. However, they now appear to have been straitjacketed into the single, limited role of being a provider of funds. It is striking to see that in cities today banks are usually viewed in their narrow function of financier, or sometimes perhaps a rather irritating or fractious risk manager for people’s individual or collective projects. But their range is wider than that. Now that we are rethinking our urban spaces, we could certainly make more use of the range of skills possessed by banks when it comes to planning, business intelligence, data analysis, and as an enabler of social links in neighbourhoods that have been reconfigured. Banks need to think about how they can optimise their skills in the urban space, combining their traditional strengths of transparency, pragmatism and rational planning.

Banking + data in the service of the urban space

With its millions of banking records, a financial institution is very much a part of the economic life of a city. A bank would for example be in a position to draw up a set of indicators on local merchants’ offerings – which would be very useful information for consumers – footfall statistics, the housing market, or even job vacancies. As financial intermediaries, banks could also become leading observatories for all kinds of business transactions, reporting on the relationships and ‘balance of power’ between various local players and entities and drawing up detailed maps for residents, elected representatives and companies that have set up in its area. This is in fact a priority field for the global digital giants, especially the Silicon Valley firms. And banks have traditionally enjoyed an enviable strategic advantage in this regard.

… but first and foremost, to serve citizens

Now that digital technology is transforming the way we live, is it perhaps time to talk about the city of the future in terms of a digital space, a smart, rational space? Beyond the terminological spats, we should now be putting all these technologies and techniques at the service of people, the very point where the worlds of digital technology and information converge. Under this paradigm, banks will be able to supply citizens with high-quality information to the benefit of both individuals and communities.

And quite apart from the valuable guidance – on getting around, consumption patterns, etc. – that data and the algorithms used to process them provide, people living in cities are increasingly keen to live different lives – unplanned, less regulated, in-the-moment lives. Convenience and the experience are key here. And here once again, banks have a role to play.

Banks already enjoy a culture of trust, confidentiality, compliance and experience in handling and processing data in a highly-regulated environment. It will be to everyone’s benefit, bearing in mind the need for responsible conduct and sharing of resources, if banks take a fresh look at their – already major – involvement in the ever-accelerating changes taking place in the urban space.

By Pierrick Bouffaron
Senior Strategic Analyst