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Smart Cities : Are They More Attractive?

bandeau innovaative cityFeedback from the Innovative City Convention on June 18th and 19th, 2013 in Nice – Palais des Congres – Acropolis

Published July 6, 2013

By the end of two intensive days of attending conferences, several of which were organized at the same time, I was really excited by their energy — no pun intended — though they were quite focused on sustainable energy.

Because I attend a lot of French and foreign conventions with an eye on the competition, I am mindful of their atmosphere, the attitudes of those working the stands, as well as their international dimension and overall content. I must say that from this point of view I found this convention to be a success. It was medium-sized and even though their presentations were not always of the same quality, you could converse easily and freely with the exhibitors. This is how I discovered the extent to which smart grids and smart cities represent not only the future of our urban environments, but also how the players remain caught up in their own definitions and « visions » (fantasies at times), particularly concerning the benefits for users.

It was no accident that Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (former Ecology, Sustainable Development, Transport and Housing french Minister), having been invited to speak at the opening of the conference, said she preferred the term communicating cities to that of smart cities. This is because the smart city approach remains complex, often unintelligible and ultimately intimidating to cities that do not yet have the means to be « 100% » smart.

The metamorphosis of cities through urbanization 
and technology was therefore the true issue of this meeting. A policy of linking technology and « sustainable » architecture through new integrated services really is transforming public space and enhancing cities. Therefore, combining wireless networks with social networks and integrating all aspects of practical urban life (energy, water, waste, transport, security, health, etc.) allow citizens to ultimately become the real players in a smart and sustainable city — their city.

The smart city of the 21st century therefore wishes to create a more social space, where communication and cooperation, the sharing of and collaboration on projects testifies to the modernity of a city.

Are there already successful and convincing examples? For now, we must recognize that the attraction seems to be to technological tools rather than the needs of the end customer. 90% of the exhibitors were energy or IT companies (ABB, GDF Suez, Suez Environnement/Lyonnaise des Eaux, Schneider Electric, Siemens, Cofely Ineo, Cofely Services, Alstom, Orange, IBM, etc.). However, some other solutions appeared to me more credible and appealing and were often supported by quite impressive 3D demonstrations. For example, at the GDF Suez stand, where the types of users were considered and scenarios were built on the patterns of « real people » who were previously interviewed about their practices and needs (e.g., students and their energy consumption, a young couple with an infant, seniors with their own particular needs, etc.).

Another discovery at the expo was the consensus on including the user when developing and qualifying future B2B offerings. In fact, everyone (from both public and private sectors) agreed that demonstrating these kinds of examples were crucial in making the « smart city » transition in neighborhoods, towns, villages, cities and business areas.

This was also the wager of Metropolitan Nice, Côte d’Azur. The workshop « Conceiving and Developing the Sustainable City » was led by Alain Philip, Deputy Mayor in charge of city planning transport and new technologies, and Veronique Paquis, Deputy Mayor in charge of sustainable development, environment and research. They provided concrete examples to demonstrate the success of government initiatives such as the Var Eco Valley and the Riviera Eco Stadium. These projects were done in collaboration with wealthier partners in the private sector that also helped organize cross-sector training and the introduction of new tools and skills well suited to the local territory. (I note here that this totally justifies our own studies of urban projects, Ed.)

For Paquis, sustainable development is a catalyst for reflection and its instruments are environmental, economic and social. Without this structure and without partnerships, there is no alternative (the Riviera Eco Stadium includes and highlights these three aspects and values​​).

Getting all of the worlds that have never spoken with each other before to communicate is becoming an essential issue for planners and developers and we welcome this. Even at the local level, identifying talent and skills and getting them to work over the long-term is a source of optimism. Because the projects are long-term, partnerships are allowed to form and produce results.

Cities will be more human, and therefore attractive, or they won’t. This could be the conclusion of my quick trip to the French Riviera. Indeed, whether the projects were sustainable cities, technopolises, new office space or future housing, it is clear that the city is becoming more friendly (though we made it so 10 to 15 years ago). This enables it to attract new talent and create more productive environments, and therefore jobs. It is a challenge for politicians because they hold the key to real transformation, one that could make their city a testing ground. A test of whether it will be able to highlight success by offering businesses spaces for more dialogue and learning.

As Jean Rottner, Mayor of Mulhouse, said at the end of a debate on innovation and attractiveness strategies for territories, « collective intelligence will take hold in companies when people take pleasure in experimenting in them…” And this is to take pleasure in creative approaches, systems and breaking with routines. Today, it is illusory to think that we innovate alone. Mulhouse is now working with areas as diverse as Nice, Strasbourg, Switzerland, Germany and Montreal, which proves that finally, co-creation is not a matter of scale but will.

Adeline Attia, Director of UBTrends and Founder of UrbanTrends. UBTrends is a market research company specializing in urban innovation & emerging trends. UrbanTrends is a Club promoting the reflexion and action facing the city of the future.