Alan Marcus is chief digital strategy officer at Planet Smart City, a company that designs and builds smart, affordable housing. He joined the business after ten years working as head of technology, media and digital at the World Economic Forum (WEF).
There he was involved in working towards a balance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) impact and profitability, alongside developing digital policies that contribute to the greater good.
“It gave me the notion that I wanted to now go back into industry [he began his career at Cisco] and see if I can find a business willing to create a balance of impact and profitability,” he says. “I wanted to see how we can take advantage of digital and information as a social good; as something shared with the community rather than used to turn that community into a customer.”
Affordable smart housing
Marcus found that place in the form of Planet Smart City, a business which shows that smart cities aren’t just for the most affluent.
The organisation has already launched several smart, yet affordable neighbourhoods in low-income communities in Brazil, Italy and India through the use of smart technology, digitalisation, resilient infrastructure and intelligent urban planning.
“In general people consider smart cities as upper/middle class affluent neighbourhoods, with really cool gadgets and the latest technologies. But when we say smart, yes, that might include gadgets, but what we’re really focused on is what makes the most sense for the community that we’re serving.”
This might mean anything from roads that reach every home or green spaces through to smart lighting or surveillance systems.
Smart communities need smart planning
“When we talk about smart, we talk about efficient community planning in terms of space, use of materials, environmental conditions. Instead of building a 65m2 home you build one that’s 64 or 63m2 and take those extra square metres to build a club house, football pitch, or in the case of Smart City Laguna in Brazil, an outdoor gym. They might not be flying cars, but they’re tremendously smart in terms of these communities,” Marcus explains.
Things like this enhance the community and in the big picture cost very little – when you look at the cost of building fairly large-scale communities the amount of additional costs to integrate features such as smart lighting or WiFi in communal spaces adds just 2-3 percent to the cost of construction, he points out.
“Keeping in mind that 40-50 percent margins on homes are quite typical, if we lose a few percent that’s ok with us. Our communities are more inviting, so we sell faster which helps us recoup costs, and the impact we make with our housing gives us a stronger brand.”
Role of technology
At Planet Smart City, technology’s role is as an enabler. As well as being integrated into a neighbourhood’s infrastructure, it’s used to help develop and support a community in the form of a mobile platform called Planet App. This is a tool that allows residents to engage with each other and the wider community in a variety of ways, such as enabling the start of community groups or booking shared spaces or resources.
“Consider that in a low-income community buying a hammer can be expensive. You could have a shed of shared tools where residents can book to use a hammer, maybe even a vacuum cleaner or paint roller,” Marcus says.
"We can track and trace where the tools are and what condition they’re in. All of sudden this changes the ability for people to live in a more productive way because they have access to things they might otherwise not afford."
Understanding unique needs
The key to success however, is ensuring that the infrastructure and services provided are those the local community want and need. To do this the company works with people within the community to ensure it’s responding to their unique set of needs.
You need to understand local nuances, says Marcus. Maybe security is important to one community, but somewhere else the number one issue is transport. “We know where to focus because we listen to the community. Every project has a community manager who lives and operates there. This builds trust, allowing us to penetrate deeper into the community and create services that are smarter for them.”
“They understand what’s happening and help us validate features we’re considering delivering, as well as giving us ideas for new services that the community would like to see…We have a Competence Centre, essentially our R&D hub, where architects, engineers, master planners, software developers, community manager leaders and methodologists then work together to figure out what the best solutions are.”
Improving lives in Kenya’s informal settlements
Planet Smart City’s latest project is something different. It recently announcement a partnership with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) to deliver new solutions for slum communities in Nairobi, Kenya.
Focusing on the informal settlements of Kibera and Mathare, the company’s role will be to deploy digital and on-the-ground solutions that will improve living conditions and help communities to coordinate locally-led initiatives. Planet App will be used as a digital hub to enable community engagement, allowing residents to access news and services such as healthcare and hear about training or job opportunities.
“These are really innovative communities. We want to work with the local people to find where these ideas are already happening and look at how we can push that technology to enable them," he adds.
"They don’t want outsiders to come in and say ‘I’ve got a solution for you’; they want to be heard. It will take time to build trust, so our model of working with community leaders is key here. We need to understand what’s happening on the ground, see where they already have ideas or solutions and then help them build efficiency and scale.”
It’s early days for the project, but Marcus has high hopes – for both this piece of work and his company. He believes Planet Smart City is uniquely positioned to lead the way in developing smart, affordable housing for people all over the world, but hopes that looking forward it won’t be the only business to follow this path.