“Though platforms can be replicated, the problems cities encounter vary widely”

By August 02, 2013
Michael Setton

Even though existing information and communication technologies are already helping to design smart cities, it’s not always clear where to begin and how to scale up solutions. The citizen is clearly central to this transformation of the city, which may in future simply play the role of mediator between the stakeholders.

Interview with Michael Setton, founder and CEO of French company Sensaris, which provides sensors for environmental and medical data.

L’Atelier: At the Innovative City Convention (held in Nice in June), you shared with the audience your vision of the technologies that can be applied to smart cities. Are there still major issues here for the development of the city of the future?

Michael Setton: I think that at this stage the barriers are no longer technological, in the sense that citizens – just like objects – can be connected and there are an enormous number of very efficient platforms available that are capable of processing and analysing city data. On the contrary, the greatest difficulty will be to convince people that there are specific solutions to various local problems such as air quality, weather conditions, noise levels and so on. Because even though technology platforms can be replicated, the problems that each city or district is confronted with vary widely from one another. But if we can mobilise citizens, if we can exploit the wisdom of the crowd, we should be able to obtain more precise and more complete diagnoses. This is what the Montreal-based startup SkyMotion has done. It has turned to crowdsourcing for meteorological data, and has achieved better forecasting at a very local level, thus providing its user citizens with a great service.

L’Atelier: But I guess this implies having reliable business models…

Michael Setton: Exactly. But we can’t expect a city to finance all these kinds of projects. And we mustn’t forget either that local authority staff don’t stay for ever. It’s therefore up to the city’s inhabitants to provide continuity. It’s all about persuading people to get involved. For the moment, we have no certain idea about just how to do this, whether engaging with citizens should involve serious games, rewards, etc. I believe that there are various routes a city could take: for example offering citizens ICT tools at affordable prices. This is what Texas Instruments is doing at the moment. They’re selling their SensorTag kit for $25. Moreover, I think it’s important to think a bit harder about the logic of rewards, i.e. the sort of services a city would be prepared to offer people if they actively take part in data gathering. A ticket for the cinema, points on iTunes? And why not create social networks based on connected objects, so that everyone can compare their data with that of their neighbours?

L’Atelier: In that case, what would be the role of the city?

Michael Setton: I believe that the city should play the role of coordinator, introducing and bringing citizens together. It will of course be the job of qualified experts to analyse the data that is collected, and up to companies to supply the necessary networks. Nevertheless the city of the future will need to try and avoid duplication of effort. Its job will be to ensure that each firm can provide a specialised service in a given field. And we’ll also have to find a means of breaking down the barriers between the different public service sectors – water, electricity, health etc, in order to be able to use the data in an efficient and secure manner.

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