How can Paris City Hall involve citizens in a public discussion on the city of the future? Digital channels would appear to be the ideal medium, but to ensure that the process is really constructive rather than mere empty debate, the authorities are now testing a new approach called Assembl.
Paris City Hall has created a website entitled Madame la Maire, j'ai une idée (‘Madam Mayor, I have an idea’), where residents can post comments on topics as diverse as sport in Paris in 2024, when Paris hopes to host the Olympic Games, plans to landscape the right bank of the Seine river, and models for how the French capital will look in the future. More than 22,000 people have registered on this ‘ideation platform’, which is a sort of huge web-era ideas box.
Ideas box on the subject of sport on the ‘Madam Mayor, I have an idea’ website
Having recently published a far-reaching policy report entitled ‘Smart and Sustainable Paris’, Paris City Hall is keen to get residents to give their reactions to the report, which was drawn up by their elected representatives. Explains Jean-Philippe Clément, Head of ICT and Innovation for the City of Paris: ‟Once the document was finalised, we decided to put it out for comments so as to encourage action. I should point out that the report is essentially a policy document. It sets out the main parameters, gives a political vision and lists some major projects to be undertaken during this term of office, some major initiatives that we intend to take. More precise detail is now needed as to the various action plans and at this moment it would be very helpful to be able to gather ideas and suggestions from Paris residents. We can then build on the basic document, adding specific action plans inspired by their thoughts and suggestions.”
Outlook for a ‘smart, sustainable Paris’ towards 2020 and beyond
However, instead of using the existing ‘idee.paris’ and ‘Madam Mayor, I have an idea’ platforms once again to encourage Parisians to respond to the report, Jean-Philippe Clément opted for a different approach. ‟We didn’t expect that this exercise would be a simple one as it’s a complex report and the content is rather specialised,” he underlines. So Martin Duval, an expert in open innovation and collective intelligence who founded a Canada- and France-based open innovation company called bluenove, suggested that the City Hall departments use a new approach, based on a platform called Assembl. "After the bluenove experts explained to us how the platform works, we decided to try out this new approach on our policy report,” says Jean-Philippe Clément.
Assembl: a tool designed to obtain the views of thousands of people
Assembl is in fact the first fruit of an EU-backed research project called CATALYST (Collective Applied Intelligence and Analytics for Social Innovation Project). ‟This project enabled us to develop a basic methodology and an online tool for running discussions involving a large number of people,” reports Duval, explaining: ‟With Assembl we can create a synthesis of the views put together by hundreds of thousands of people over a fairly long period of time – around eight weeks – on a particular issue that we put on the table.” The process is structured in such a way that views which people put forward are not simply drowned out by the thousands of opinions offered and comments made, as is often the case with traditional discussion forums.
The Smart and Sustainable Paris site went online in early summer. It is gathering opinions and ideas on questions which are crucial to how Paris will evolve towards 2020. Jean-Philippe Clément reveals: ‟The feedback has provided some really original ideas, as well as people’s points of view and different ways of looking at these issues.” For example, one of the discussions that has taken place on the new site is about the public facilities which City Hall could or should be setting up so as to foster innovation at neighbourhood level. “People taking part in the discussion have made suggestions on the way these facilities should be set up in the eastern districts of Paris with a view to having a knock-on effect across a wider area. This is collective intelligence at work in practice.”
Perhaps quite unlike the basic concept of an ideas box, the purpose of this dialogue platform is not necessarily to get people to come up with new ideas, but rather to encourage an exchange of views. “This is not about good or bad ideas, and the main point is not really to generate a very large number of ideas. What is useful is to have lots of viewpoints on a given topic,” explains Clément, underlining: “We’re not looking to find, at all costs, a brainwave, a brilliant idea that no-one’s ever had before. Basically what we’re looking for is a range of opinions so that at the end of the day the topic in question will be examined in a much more comprehensive manner.”
Smart and Sustainable Paris’, presentation in the run-up to the city’s hosting of COP21
A few months after it was launched online, Jean-Philippe Clément judges it to be highly satisfactory. Assembl has amply demonstrated that it can be used to facilitate debate, generate exchanges of opinion, obtain good suggestions, and draw up a summary – which is always an important stage in any debate. Some functionality still remains to be developed however, for example linking the public meetings run by City Hall to the exchange of views taking place on the Internet.