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The smart city in all it's forms

Rethinking our urbanization model to make cities into spaces adapted to new, innovative and sustainable lifestyles is the challenge that urban planning stakeholders must take up today. The idea of an intelligent city is emerging.

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History of the concept and its evolution

The idea of a “smart city” came out of challenge issued by Bill Clinton to John Chambers, president of Cisco in 2005. The American digital network manufacturer was fascinated by a project launched in the South Korean town of Songdo, a high-tech district stuffed with sensors collecting and processing massive amounts of data.
“Yes, but to what end? Bill Clinton would have replied. Why not use technological tools to make towns and cities smart and more sustainable?” Cisco then released a research budget of 25 million dollars to upgrade the Songdo project from version 1.0 to a smart city version 2.0: “A sustainable town, according to their own definition, which combines a traditional infrastructure [built islands, gardens, etc.] with technology to enrich the citizen’s lives”.

Each town has its own characteristics with very different objectives, emphasised Nicolas Monsarrat, Executive Director of Accenture France. A “smart city” is a town/city which uses digital technology to reach these objectives: Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to welcome pilgrims under the best conditions, or Neom [“the new town of the future”] to develop tourism. Dubai, to attract international talents and develop their economy, Helsinki, and in particular the Kalasatama district to make the town a great place to live.”

Each town has its own characteristics with very different objectives, emphasised Nicolas Monsarrat, Executive Director of Accenture France. A “smart city” is a town/city which uses digital technology to reach these objectives: Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to welcome pilgrims under the best conditions, or Neom [“the new town of the future”] to develop tourism. Dubai, to attract international talents and develop their economy, Helsinki, and in particular the Kalasatama district to make the town a great place to live.”

A new approach to the smart city – a version 3.0 – emerged a few years ago in European cities such as Barcelona, Vienna or Lyon. In compliance with the law, they share their data with the inhabitants while encouraging participatory usage. In this way, each citizen becomes an actor in the “smart city” either by producing data via sensors, or using it to propose urban services which take account of uses and requirements. In involving its citizens, it corrects a shortcoming, often criticised, which considers each problem in urban day-to-day living as a technological problem.

How do towns/cities seize the smart city?

Since the 2010’s, more and more townships are carrying out smart city projects to design towns which are pleasant to live in and suited to current and future challenges (social, health, economic or climatic).Here is a figure which confirms the interest of towns and regions in smart cities: more than 95.8 billion dollars of technological investments have been dedicated to this model across the world in 2019 according the International data corporation (IDC). And these expenses will reach 189.5 billion dollars in 2023. In front, Singapore, the uncontested leading investor in the smart city, followed by New York, Tokyo, London, Peking and Shanghai. Each have stated that they will exceed the billion dollar mark in 2020.

millards de dollars
of technology investments have been devoted to this model worldwide in 2019.

Whatever the sums committed, the way in which the towns/cities seize the concept comes down, it seems, to three different views.A technical-centred view which drives a rich city like Singapore to rely on IA to manage, ever more efficiently, all aspects of the life of its residents, particularly their safety albeit to the detriment of their liberty. A pragmatic view, for most western countries: the digital tools are relevant but only deal with some of the urgent and concrete issues with which they are confronted. Lastly, a humanist, political view at Barcelona and Dijon which does not rule out the first two but considers the “digital revolution” as the time to question the current models and reinvent the urban community with “smart citizens”.

“What do you like about Singapore? – It’s a safe city. The water is safe, the streets are safe, the gardens are safe.” Nicolas Monsarrat, Executive Director of Accenture France, likes to recall this conversation with a taxi driver on the journey from the airport to his office, to illustrate the direct link between the smart city and safety. The smart city of Singapore reassures its residents that it is able to cope with any problems and absorb any shock. From 2014, it has been developing, as part of its “Smart Nation” plan, an Innovation Center for Situational Awareness, whose programme was opened up in January 2020 to other public health organisations in order to protect its citizens. Artificial Intelligence makes it possible to do what mankind could not do: produce all possible crisis situations, anticipate them and respond to them.

One of the effects of this programme? Its management of coronavirus, applauded in March 2020 by the American scientific authorities, such as Mickael Osterholm director of the centre of research into infectious diseases of the University of Minnesota: only 18 deaths to report, very little dispersion of the infection although the population density is very high and the risk extremely great. Its methods: “contact tracking”, careful monitoring of individuals who have detected positive for the coronavirus and told to stay at home, and being transparent with the population. It is possible to locate patients, in real time on an interactive map which gives their age, sex, nationality and the street where they live. Their name is however not given.
Some of these measures elicit debate in France, but they are contributing to overcoming the challenge facing Singapore. That of remaining attractive and drawing in talent although this city-state is only a small enclave at the southern tip of Malaysia without energy or agricultural resources.

Singapore remains a model apart. Most cities in the West, according to Ben Green, author of The smart enough city (2019), “dream of attaining these results although its model cannot be reproduced”: its attacks on human rights are frequently denounced by the Human Rights Watch NGO. Most of the towns and cities in France are getting hold of digital tools without a real long-term political vision, experimenting with them in a section of their region to resolve financial issues, make savings in electricity and water for example. An observation shared by Constance Nebbula, municipal councillor of Angers, with special responsibility for digital technology, innovation and the smart city.

France has 27 smart cities. According to the Gazette des communes, 15 have less than 260,000 inhabitants and two stand out: Dijon, then Angers. Their respective budgets: 105 million Euros for Dijon and 178 for Angers will produce a return on investment in twenty years through savings made. The projects will make it possible to optimise the operation of all the town’s services (transport, safety, lighting, waste management, etc.) with the construction of a hypervisor, a sort of central control station whose design and maintenance has been entrusted by Dijon to a private consortium made up of Bouygues Energie et Services, Citelium (subsidiary of EDF), Suez and Cap Gemini; Angers has entrusted its version to a consortium run by Engie Ineo working with Suez, La Poste and VYV.

smart cities
France has 27 smart cities.

“The creation of “smart and connected Dijon metropolis” is first and foremost a collaborative process, states the city on its site. This smart metropolis is worked out through the coming together of the ideas and creative forces of the inhabitants of the 23 communes and all actors within the region.” A process also adopted by a number of cities which provide city-dwellers with applications for measuring air quality – and invite them to help improve it as part of a project as Paris has done with its Climate Air Energy Plan – or to notify problems through applications such as 311 in New York or DansMaRue in Paris to enable the city to deal with them efficiently.

A pioneer of participatory democracy, Vancouver was the first to share, in 2009, “freely with its citizens, companies and other jurisdictions, the greatest quantity of data possible while respecting private life and security”. “When data is shared freely, citizens can use it and convert it which encourages the creation of a more economically-dynamic and environmentally-friendly city”, stated the Municipal council in justification.

Barcelona followed their example in 2010 and, via the site OpendataBCN, proposes each year to the residents that they use its data to help overcome the political, societal or environmental challenges with which it is faced. Paris has done the same since 2011. Since then, opening up data has been made compulsory for all French communes through the Lemaire law for a Digital Republic in 2016. “We have launched our Smart Geneva project after opening up our data to the citizens. In this way, we will be able to build a smart city together.” said Patrick Montier, Smart Geneva project manager. This has become the leitmotiv for those supporting the human-centred smart city: the smart city will not happen without smart citizens.

Challenges: Controlling urban data

Without control over its data, whether public or private, the town/city cannot guarantee its sovereignty
Nicknamed “datapolis” by the journalist Francis Pisani, the smart city, during its emergence at the beginning of the 2000’s, did not fail to raise concerns due to its massive collections of data. The growth in data is exponential with the appearance of more and more sensors or video-protection cameras which promise to improve citizens’ lives…as well as the economic health of the companies supplying the data, like IBM or Decaux.

Controlling the urban data produced by these sensors is a major challenge for municipalities. As this alone will guarantee its sovereignty and repair an asymmetry between public and private powers in involving more citizens in democratic life while guaranteeing the protection of private life written into the constitution since 2018.

The protection of citizens’ rights, as for private life, is difficult to reconcile with the principle of “virtuous freedom” (for example free WiFi versus data collection), to which municipalities often yield. In France, Grenoble is an exception in banning an actor in smart street furniture from public spaces. LinkNYC terminals, installed in New York by Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet, after having won an invitation to tender for a project aiming to reinvent telephone booths, claim, as well they might, that they offer “the greatest and most powerful free WiFi ever offered by a town/city”. In towns as on the Internet, a saying warns “when a product is free, you are the product”.

The problem with capturing personal data is that its management sits equally within the framework of the public-private partnerships working on smart city projects. In France, personal data remains under the governance of the cities. Control is maintained by the public service which is the “trusted third party”. To develop the ability of regions to manage data sharing, initiatives have been launched, such as DataCités 2 led by Chronos and Ouishare; these support a number of regions in collaboration with partners such as la Banque des Territoires, ADEME, CGET, Bouygues Construction and Bouygues Energies & Services. 

A full review of this work will take place at the end of June 2020. A welcome support: at the end of 2019, more than 60% of communes had not yet nominated a Data Protection Officer (DPO), according to the Journal du Net despite this being required by the General data protection rules (GDPR).
It happens, however, that certain private actors refuse to share their data with communities in order to serve the public interest. Under this principle, New York forced Uber in 2017 to communicate this data to improve taxi traffic. But the group provided this data to the city anonymised and grouped very schematically under topics…

Citizens’ mistrust of the control and usage of their personal information was especially demonstrated in Canada at Toronto from the announcement of the futuristic project for the Quayside district designed by Sidewalk Labs, nicknamed “Google city”. Since 2018, a group of citizens, lead by Bianca Wylie, rose up to force the stakeholders, Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto, the body which brings together the province, city and government, to revise their contract.

The group obtained public powers at the end of 2019 “to limit the scope of future work and require that the data collected be managed by a public entity and stored in Canada” stressed Le Monde, proving that citizens can help their representatives defend the public interest.

Beyond this example, concern over the ability of towns and cities to guarantee the freedom and anonymity of their citizens can be read on social networks, on Twitter for example where the hash tag #smartcity was accessed 180 million times in 2018.

The use of data by totalitarian democratic regimes have made the headlines for a number of years and feeds into this insecurity. In China, videosurveillance cameras incorporating facial recognition systems provided by companies such as Huawei to carry out their “safe city” policy strikes fear in France! “The Chinese giant provocatively gifted more than 200 cameras at the last count to the town of Valenciennes to modernise their videosurveillance system”, title 20 minutes in January 2020.The use of data by our western democracies is also feared. The American think tank Rank Corporation warned, in a report published in 2017, against crime prediction software such as Crime Scan or PredPol used at Los Angeles or Atlanta, which, due to the racial bias of the algorithms reinforces prejudices.

Could they not rather prevent crimes by mobilising social services in “at risk” locations by looking for delinquency problems at source?

Lastly, the reliability of the tools themselves is challenged. Acts of cyber-vandalism not only target private groups. “A “massive” cyber-attack at Marseille, its region and metropolis” was revealed by the press on 15 March 2020. There was moreover a data leak, observed by a group of hackers in March 2019, which gave the West a preview of Chinese surveillance, targeting hundreds of millions of individuals. In a city with multiple connected objects, from street furniture to the metro turnstile, the more the entry points increase, the more the risks will increase in line. Building walls around data such as firewalls, encrypting them, multiplying the passwords, none of this guarantees zero risk: this does not exist. 

As there is no infallible protection, the municipalities focus on preventative security and efficiency of reaction to the cyber attack.“There is much work to be done to achieve digital responsibility, concluded Constance Nebbula, the digital adviser to Angers. And it must include the contamination generated by the digital industry. This has become a new priority for smart cities”. A paradox moreover that the smart cities will need to resolve.

Interview of Yannick Rumpala and Patrick Montier

When sci-fi shines a light on the future: interview with Yannick Rumpala, conference manager in political science at the University of Nice, specialist in ecological transition projects, and Patrick Montier, manager of the Smart Geneva project at the Département du territoire (DT), Republic and Canton of Geneva.


Yannick Rumpala (YR): The surface of the earth is becoming more and more occupied by the technological sphere. Cables, electric wires and waves link visible and invisible networks on the planet: the term cyborg, usually reserved to characters from science fiction who combine the organic and “machinic”, can also be applied to them. This transformation continues to affect individuals.

Yannick Rumpala

YR: Technological objects which are essential for moving around the town, form part of these activities, are at one with it, become an extension of the citizens, a type of prosthesis. Smartphones no longer leave the hand. Some individuals, in Sweden, have had a chip implanted under their skin to replace their credit card, train ticket, etc. Vehicles become over-equipped bubbles, “augmenting” the individual. In a passenger compartment, we are at one with the machine, the manufacturers of the “intelligent vehicle” know this.

Yannick Rumpala is the author of the book "Hors des décombres du monde"

Patrick Montier (PM): In their initial versions, smart cities caused a lot of concern. I’m thinking of Singapore with its artificial “super-trees” crammed with sensors. There are still people who believe that humans will find solutions to the problems they have caused using technology. This logic will lead to us living in dystopian scenarios, to which some smart cities are already close, towns when humans are augmented, connected to other humans and objects through technology. This is the type of future towards which the GAFAs are pushing cities, when they try to take control with projects such as Quayside in Toronto.

Patrick Montier

The best works of science fiction confront us with the consequences of technologies. Where could the logic of mobile phone dependency go for example? Lauren Beukes, in Moxyland, describes inhabitants forced to carry a smartphone. Every single daily operation goes through it. The police can even use it to punish a citizen by electrical discharges. Would an operator or a government one day not be tempted to do this? Up to which point could our “prosthesis” manage our daily lives?
The almost predictive role of science fiction is also of interest to institutions: the American army called on authors who have produced films of invasions by zombies to prepare for epidemiological scenarios and anticipate the correct responses. Often, what happens is not predicted. As the American author Frederik Pohl said: “A good science fiction story should not just predict the car but traffic jams”.

This is not Geneva’s view in any way, where an ecological emergency was voted in 2019. It is developing a sustainable development plan canton by canton based on three pillars: the environment, society and the economy. “Smart Geneva” is a project and a platform which brings together a community of actors from 45 communes, including bordering French towns (Greater Geneva), to answer the question: what do we do to maintain biodiversity and our moral and civic values?
We think technology can be a useful tool when it makes a real contribution to the reduction in pollution, both light and sound for example. It is for this reason that we will use sensors to limit the use of artificial light, control noise, vibration and development of construction sites. But before this, we must ensure that the equipment is suitable: select street lights which throw light downwards and not upwards for example; this has harmful effects on fauna and flora.

We carried out a study involving 5,000 individuals in 2019 as part of Geneva 2050. Their primary concerns: to have a social link, good air quality, and to feel safe in a town protected from anti-social behaviour. Which raises the question: can technology help with all this at the same time and how?

Yes, it’s possible but on condition that the citizens manage to reallocate the available technical capacities. An alternative model to the smart city is emerging: the fab city. By broadening the principle of fab labs, collaborative workshops with professional machines, the residents could have the means of rethinking some of their requirements and responding to them. There, knowledge is exchanged, or you can learn to understand, maintain and repair the devices, or manufacture them. These are places which allow you to take a step backwards from the tools. This model also encourages empowerment, gaining confidence in oneself and maintaining social links.

At Nice, for example, the NiceLab, very militant and committed, helps, using “do it yourself” (DIY) equipment and 3D printers, in the manufacture of all sorts of objects much less expensive than those sold. It offers to produce OSs like Windows to make the move to open-source systems like Linux. It is necessary to think in terms of reducing material flows, imports and waste to give priority to local circuits and frugality, while remaining globally connected: “locally productive, globally connected” is the motto of the fab city.


Or to try. In the same way, the project “Incredible Edible”, launched by a group of friends at Todmorden in England (a de-industrialised, impoverished town), is responding to a desire for local production on a human scale. They bring back the smallest brownfield plot and link the town with green spaces, wooden tubs, and you plant, harvest when you want. Even the police station has released the space in front of its premises to take part in the project.
Applications such as collaborative mapping, through geolocation data, then make it possible to view the locations of fruit trees (fallingfruit.org for example) and to inspire new projects such as loaned gardens. In this way, people reappropriate the urban fabric without being forced to serve the interests of commercial groups. Like the productions from fab labs, these are “peer productions on a common basis” within an open logic.

This is a collaborative principle analogous to the Wikipedia on-line encyclopaedia, but in material form.
Once again, reality meets fiction: read Cory Doctrow…

PM: Farms and urban gardens are part of the “Smart Geneva” project and we shall support them with training and include the youngest members. Companies will work with schools to produce shared gardens. This also involves teaching the youngest children about virtuous circles: retrieving vegetable wastes, such as grass cuttings, to make fertiliser or cover the soil to retain humidity instead of placing them into the waste bin to be burnt in incinerators and converted into pollutants. We can thus carry out a series of lo-tech projects simply because the well-being of the people does not necessarily depend on this. And there is no question in this project of adding pollution to pollution!

You know, before starting our Smart Geneva project, we took our time and looked at what other towns had done, taking our cue from their errors and what had worked. We observed two things, Firstly there were no two smart cities which were the same, and so no model. Then, that all the projects which worked were those which were designed and carried forward by all stakeholders. Which defines the role of Geneva: to be a facilitator. And a shop window for anyone who can do better.

This article was originally published in Open Up, Bouygues Construction's prospective newsletter. Subscribe for free and receive it directly by email! To subscribe, send a request to prospective@bouygues-construction.com.

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Contact : Virginie ALONZI
Foresight Director - DPMS - Bouygues Construction SA
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