Smart City Paris: "citizen participation is a key priority"

By December 09, 2015
Paris, une ville durable, ouverte et connectée

In 2015, the City of Paris authorities launched the ‘Smart and Sustainable Paris’ initiative with a view to turning France’s capital into the smart city of tomorrow.

L’Atelier met up with Benjamin Favriau, who heads up the Smart City project at Paris City Hall, on the sidelines of the recent Digiworld Summit in Montpellier. Here he talks about Paris’s vision for the smart city.

L’Atelier: Aren’t there in fact as many different ‘smart city’ models as there as towns and cities in the world? What strong points and original features does Paris have in comparison with other ‘smart’ cities?

Benjamin Favriau: Paris defines the smart city as a cross between three distinct urban models – the sustainable city, the connected city and the open city. It’s this third element that makes the Paris initiative original.

Obviously the basic aim is not to install sensors all over the town just for the sake of using new technologies, but to deploy new methods of delivering a more efficient public service for Parisians. For instance, as part of our ‘Swimming in Paris’ plan, we intend to connect up all the municipal swimming pools, installing sensors above the pools so as to measure how frequently each one is being used. That should enable the City to a) adjust infrastructure expenses – water provision and heating – and b) provide Parisians with real-time information about how full the pools are on the website.

In Paris, we’re also fortunate enough to have 3,000 startups and highly structured incubators linked to Paris&Co so we’re able to finance innovative solutions and work in an agile manner in order to deliver a better public service.

In spite of these strong points you’ve just mentioned, ‘Smart and Sustainable Paris’ wasn’t officially up and running until this year, 2015. Why did it take Paris so long to decide to become ‘smart’?

Oh, I don’t think Paris has embarked on this path any later than other towns. On the contrary, Paris was already pretty smart very early on! ‘Smart’ initiatives in the urban space were successfully launched a long time ago. Look at actions such as (subscription-based town bikes and electric cars initiatives) Vélib’ and Autolib’, which have really caught people’s attention.

I think that what Paris needs to do next in order to become even smarter is to break out of the silo mentality. The data collected from connected objects has a rich, almost infinite, potential if we can just manage to put it all together! In the case of the connected swimming pools for example, we could improve our forecasting on user numbers if we could combine the figures gleaned from the pools with Velib’ usage data, plus the weather forecast, etc.  If you can break out of the silo approach and splice one set of data with other information, you will be able to create high-added-value services and really make progress. It’s absolutely vital to take a cross-cutting approach among various different initiatives which the city is running on the ‘smart’ and ‘sustainable’ front.

So far you’ve only mentioned technological advances, but how can users be part of the rollout of the smart city? What sort of support are people getting from the City of Paris to make good use of the new technologies?

Paris is an open city, and wants to encourage citizen participation. A major example of this approach is the move to participatory budgeting, which has enabled people to submit over 5,000 proposals to City Hall departments, which has in turn led to several hundred projects being put to Parisian voters. Nowadays lots of policy proposals go through a brainstorming and discussion phase involving Paris residents on the website.

Of course it’s also essential that people receive some training in the new digital approaches, starting with our own staff.  We’ve set in motion a process of digital acclimatisation. The ‘Smart and Sustainable Paris’ project is run by five people on the Paris City Hall staff.  We’ve set up a Partners’ Committee and we hold workshops to which we invite private sector firms and non-profits, together with representatives of all Paris City Hall departments, with a view to building our smart city together.

We also draw on experience from other initiatives such as the process of creating the Dans ma rue  (In my street) app, involving a number of City departments plus other partners involved in the use of public spaces, which enables Paris residents to alert the relevant municipal services of any problems or incidents affecting public areas.

Now that new players have been appearing and competing with your traditional partners in their own specific fields – the most discussed example being Uber and the traditional Paris taxis – how do you go about working with the various private sector firms that provide important services in the city?

The basic principle of the smart city is to take an open attitude and build things in conjunction with a number of partners – companies of all shapes and sizes, including startups, plus users

A lot of projects begin with those workshops run by the Partners’ Committee, where an action roadmap can be drawn up. This is for example what’s going to happen with the Mobility working group, which is due to kick off in early January. We’ll be bringing together a number of different players in the transport field in Paris in order – I sincerely hope so at least – to create a coordinated response to the needs.

These days, a number of our partners are afraid that their business is about to be uberised. So it’s up to the City to work hand-in-hand with them and help them come up with a digital strategy in good time so that they won’t simply be reduced to making a knee-jerk reaction when the change has already taken place.  

How do you assess the likely effectiveness of the projects you select?

Well, the assessment stage is often the most difficult part and the least efficient aspect of the entire project management. The City of Paris authorities make an assessment of the impact of the project’s business model on the basis of quantitative criteria such as the number of jobs created, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and so on. Making these estimates is of course an essential step for the municipality and our various partner groups and it also enables the startups which are collaborating on the project to test out their solutions in the City and obtain real feedback on what they are doing.

And of course we mustn’t forget the second aspect of project assessment – the qualitative aspect. The City of Paris also wants to find out whether the users actually notice an improvement in the public services. For example, we’re soon going to install signage around the City for the convenience of tourists who come to see the Euro 2016 football tournament, and of course we need to be sure that the new signs are 100% clear to the target audience.

At the moment we’re talking about the smart city, but are cities actually cooperating among themselves to design a smart region, a smart country… or perhaps even a smart Europe?

The European Union puts out calls for tender for cooperative projects that go far beyond city-scale, enabling the sharing of feedback and helping to drive the conception of new solutions. This is a very healthy process, although there’s another side to the coin – when French cities compete for EU-wide projects they can’t be part of the same consortium. Nevertheless, French cities are now cooperating more and more frequently in certain ways, particularly when it comes to opening up their data to each other.

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