Smart thinking on the regional scale

02 October 2018ContactDaniel Thépin, Cécile Diguet, Sophie Roquelle


Professor of the History of Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a teacher at École des Ponts Paris Tech engineering school, Antoine Picon has written numerous books and conducted research work on the city of the future and its infrastructures. He explains why it is necessary to think about a digital strategy on the scale of a geographical area that does not encompass urbanised spaces alone.

What would be your definition of a smart city?

Antoine Picon: First and foremost, a Smart City is a more efficient city due to enhanced urban transport and an extensive supply of services... In recent years, the concepts of Smart City and green/resilient city have converged significantly. To a large extent, this explains the widespread enthusiasm for the Smart City concept, notably in Paris. Of course, everything is related: needless to say, a more efficient city is less energy-intensive, less wasteful, enhances its natural resources, and so on. Finally, the idea behind the Smart City concept is that of a different urban experience, i.e. a new quality of urban living. Many people see the Smart City as a way of rethinking urban life (the city concept) in answer to the following questions: what does 'living together' in urban areas mean? What are the pleasures of urban life? What opportunities does it provide? In fact, the greatest challenge we are facing today when discussing the Smart City topic is that it refers both to a set of ideals, some of which are almost utopian, and to numerous very practical and diverse experiences.

At what point can we consider a city as Smart?

A.P.: We can consider a city as Smart when it has developed a critical mass of applications intended to make it more efficient, more livable and so on. But we must avoid giving in to the craze for urban "benchmarking", which consists of quantifying everything. This does not make much sense and leads to certain aberrations, such as, for example, the proliferation of league tables that rank towns and cities in terms of the "best place in which live" or of “the most ‘student-friendly’ environment”, etc. Personally, I prefer a more qualitative criterion: a town or city is truly smart when the quality of the urban experience really begins to change. This is the case, for example, when apps help you diversify and optimize your modes of transport. After all, ultimately, what counts is the quality of life.

Is there such a thing as a Smart City model?

A. P.: For the moment, we see the same technologies being used in towns and cities almost everywhere across the world: featuring sensors, smartphone applications, etc. At the same time, in addition to this convergence of tools and issues (e.g. the rise in urban events or in attempts to redefine the role of urban policies), we see some necessary adaptations and divergences. In fact, we are going to discover that, as happened in the 19th century at the start of the network-based town or city, the Smart City concept will be applied in very different ways depending on urban situations. However, we are still at a very early stage in the diversification of models, namely the exploratory stage.

Does the Smart City stop at the limits of each urban area?

A. P.:  It would be absurd to think that a Smart City is limited to urban areas. However, the question of the transition from one local area or intermunicipal authority to another has received little attention so far because the differences between areas pose problems of comparability and ranking given their unequal levels of development. We cannot position sensors everywhere. Although it may be worthwhile in the dense heart of metropolitan areas, it is not so in low-density areas. In the outer suburbs, the number of economic hubs does not justify massive investment in all sectors, which means that choices must be made. Historically, the mayors (leaders of municipal governments) have been making the case for the Smart City and have asked their territorial administrations to “act Smart”, in conjunction with major IT operators (IBM, Cisco, etc.) or start-ups. Until now, there has not been any truly regional policy. And yet, in my view, the region is the most relevant scale on which to address certain related issues for several reasons. To begin with, the region is the body capable of regulating different Smart systems at municipal level and making them compatible with each other. Next, the regional scale compels us to take geographical features into account. For instance, in the Paris region, there are still large natural areas, woods and lakes. Integrating the management of these vast natural areas into a smart approach by digitizing the management of the environment on a regional scale seems to be an important challenge that is not spoken about very much. Quite clearly, the question of the environmental future of Paris cannot be addressed only on the scale of the core city of Paris. The regional scale also allows us to address the issue of the social divide. This is particularly true in the Paris Region, where economic, social and cultural disparities are wide from one end of the territory to the other. The Smart approach could be used as a tool to strengthen social cohesion.

How can digitalization be spatially deployed across all areas and what challenges does it pose?

A. P.: For centuries, we have been obsessed with the idea of regularly reviewing our urban planning and composition to help us find our way around the town or city thanks to the “legibility” of its physical space. Digitalization, by expanding the "physical space of atoms", by developing "the digital space of bits” has changed our relationship with urban space and led to new urban practices. This is true, for example, of the growing number of people here and elsewhere who walk with their mobile phones in their hands at the same time, feeling equally at ease in New York as they would in the winding streets of a medina thanks to the small blue dot that geolocates them. Similarly, Uber is changing our relationship with urban mobility, which used to be embedded in the urban fabric by regular bus lines and even more so by metro or tramway lines. Thanks to chauffeured cars, mobility is becoming an almost gaseous form of service that crystallizes when you order it. This form of mobility structures urban life very differently: instead of traditional flow management, an organization system that aims to match supply and demand takes over. This platform-based approach very deeply changes the way we think about infrastructures. Of course, we are not going to redesign the centers of Venice or Paris, but all of this is going to have some real impacts on the way urban areas and territories function.

In terms of urban planning, what is the significance of the advent of digitalization in all aspects of territorial development?

A. P.:  We have experienced a change of era. We no longer think about towns and cities as people used to in the days of Le Corbusier, when modernity was identified as the triumph of planning. Plan-based thinking has given way to scenario- or narrative-based thinking. Today, there is also the cult of iconic architectural structures or "trophy buildings", as illustrated by the Elbe Philharmonic hall in Hamburg, the Gherkin in London and the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, etc. Such monuments are supposed to embody the destiny of a city or territory. At the same time, public stakeholders now exert only partial control over the destinies of towns and cities, which are increasingly in the hands of private stakeholders and dependent on the financialization of production cities. Today, towns and cities rely on agencies to locate their trophy buildings, whereas in the past buildings went up in places assigned to them by a plan. However, when all is said and done, designing scenarios and narratives may well be a more effective way of shaping the future of a town or city. The tools currently used in urban planning are ill-suited to this trend, especially given that we are witnessing an acceleration in the production of scenarios driven, a trend driven by big data and the urban modelling concept. Urban modelling is not a matter of planning: planning used to be willfully proactive, whereas modelling looks at how a territory actually functions in the present and then extrapolates on this basis, using narratives to communicate.

In the face of this acceleration in scenario- production, how can we anticipate future regional development and shape it? How can we draw up a digital strategy for a 15-20 year period?

A. P.: It is difficult, if not impossible, to draw up a 15-20-year digital strategy. The real issue is the aging of digital technology. Taking the example of architecture, the formats of architectural drawing files dating from the late 1990s are almost unreadable today. This explains why all archives across the world have bet on the PDF format. The same question applies, for example, to geolocated data formats: will they last a long time? My second concern is to refrain from overrating digital technology by vaunting its neo-avant-garde status. Atoms remain more expensive than bits of information; in Paris, the price of a piece of property per square meter is much higher than that of a terabit. We can digitize as much as we like, but we still need to rely on networks in good condition, i.e. on a high-performance physical infrastructure. And yet, strangely enough, we do things backwards: the digital world prevails over the physical world, whereas in the day-to-day lives of Paris Region inhabitants it is still the physical world that prevails over the digital. My third major concern is the depletion of the Earth's natural resources. Digital technology, which has its own environmental footprint, should enable us to manage the growing scarcity of physical resources. This is what really threatens the Earth, more than the scarcity of digital resources.

Interviewed by Daniel Thépin, Cécile Diguet and Sophie Roquelle


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