Rethinking how cities help their most vulnerable in the wake of COVID-19

November 19, 2020 | By Sophie Hares

As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread around the world, cities have been particularly hard hit. Urban centers thrive on the collision of people and cultures, whether that happens at a shop, at the theater or on public transportation.

But the pandemic has forced city leaders to adjust on the fly and rethink how they can help their most vulnerable residents and build more resilient cities for tomorrow.

“The disruption we're having right now is really the lubrication for change in our cities,” said  David Ricketts, a strategic innovation fellow at Harvard University’s Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Mastercard’s first City Possible Summit last week. The virtual summit brought together participants from more than 180 cities and academic, public, private and nonprofit experts.

Leaders spoke about drawing on their “superpower” — their ability to collaborate with businesses, governments and communities — as a crucial tool for developing sustainable, fairer services. They also outlined five ways they are learning from the pandemic to ensure that everyone can benefit from the promise of technology:

Slash the digital divide

The pandemic has highlighted the separation between the digital haves and have-nots. Children without internet access risk slipping behind at school, adults are unable to work from home, and the elderly struggle to cope with social isolation.

Some U.S. cities are bridging the gap. In New York City, 10,000 seniors in public housing received tablets along with coaching on how to shop, contact their doctor and stay in touch online. Philadelphia and Los Angeles have rolled out free internet so people can access city services remotely.

“We’re really trying to connect technology to human needs to make sure that it’s benefitting people’s everyday lives,” said John Paul Farmer, New York City’s chief technology officer.

Time for a reckoning on homelessness  

Cities are housing thousands of homeless people in shelters and motels to help protect them during the pandemic, but many are still left out on the streets.

In San Jose, California, the city has installed mobile showers, washing stations and dumpsters near homeless encampments. Through its Cash for Trash program, it’s paying these people to keep the city clean. But instead of paying them in cash, which can be hard to keep safe, the city gives them a Mastercard reloadable card that is programmed to be used at select merchants to buy food and other essentials. It’s part of the Mastercard City Key platform, which combines a municipal ID card with payments and access to city services.

“It’s giving them back a pathway [toward] self-sufficiency,” said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, “so they can get back on their feet while they’re cleaning the city and help them on a pathway to getting a house as well.”

Expand financial assistance

It’s expensive being poor at the best of times – people without bank accounts often pay high fees to cash checks or borrow from payday lenders. In the U.S., many unbanked people have struggled to access financial aid made available during the pandemic.

Some cities are now looking to Mastercard City Key help people navigate through the crisis and become part of the digital economy. Honolulu plans to hand out the cards to thousands of people so they can buy groceries at stores instead of going to food lines.

In Los Angeles, leaders used Mastercard City Key to funnel aid initially to about 100,000 residents hit hardest by the pandemic, while helping them build a credit history and boost financial literacy. “We’re trying to help people rebuild in the most sustainable, resilient way,” said Jeanne Holm, Los Angeles deputy mayor for budget and innovation.

Learn from data

Almost overnight, cities expanded their digital efforts to provide online services and ensure staff could work remotely. Now they’re finding new ways to analyze massive amounts of aggregated and anonymized data to provide better and safer services to their communities. Los Angeles uses data to show which neighborhoods, ethnicities and income groups are most affected by the pandemic to better target assistance, while authorities in London use traffic, mobile phone and financial data to show how specific areas are being impacted.

“Data and understanding of what's happening in the city, which areas are recovering better than others, will be very important as cities get reshaped,” said Carlos Menendez, Mastercard’s president of Enterprise Partnerships.

Rethink transportation

The pandemic has taken a toll on public transportation as work and school have moved to the home.

Experts say cities now have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rethink mass transit. Finding ways to integrate bikes, scooters and ride-hailing options into citywide systems could encourage people to choose public transit options and leave their cars at home.

“Cities now have the ability to basically get a blank sheet of paper, and look at how they're going to provide mobility,” said Andy Taylor, senior global strategy director at Cubic Transportation Systems, which recently joined the City Possible network.

Beyond driving economic growth, cities play a crucial role in empowering financial inclusion and catalyzing progressive social change, says Miguel Gamiño Jr., head of City Possible. “By building strong partnerships with the private sector and taking advantage of innovative technologies, city leaders can guide their communities through the pandemic, helping them emerge stronger, more inclusive and sustainable, and better prepared to face whatever the future holds.”

Sophie Hares, Contributor