Whenever there was talk of digital in the service of the city in the 2010s, one image came to mind: a bird’s-eye view of the Centro de Operações Rio (COR), the Operations Centre of the city of Rio de Janeiro, an 80 m2 control room in which dozens of staff in front of their computers, all wearing the same uniform, face a wide wall lined with a hundred screens.
Why has this photo been shared so much? Under 24/7 surveillance, the city of Rio seems to be akin to George Orwell’s fictional 1984.
But it also gives glimpse of the potential of digital tools, “which are only what we decide to make of them”, as Michele Dominici reminded us in the introduction to this dossier: combining efficient urban management and environmental preservation, offering new services to city dwellers to help them in their daily lives, and strengthening links between citizens. It’s up to the towns to determine how, with which partners.
URBAN MANAGEMENT AND ENVIRONMENTAL PRESERVATION
In the Centro de Operações Rio, all the staff wear the same uniform, and one of the major advantages of the command platform is not obvious: that of bringing together in the same room several different departments (roads, lighting, traffic, communication, etc.) to monitor and co-pilot the urban flows of a city of 1,260 km2, in order to “minimise the impact [on the city] of major events”, as it says on the Centre’s Twitter site (riots or torrential rain).
In France, Dijon Métropole has seen all the benefits that the territory and its inhabitants could derive from this mode of operation and has equipped its services with a connected control center which allows all the urban equipments of the 23 municipalities of the territory (traffic lights, public lighting, video protection, etc.) to be managed remotely and centrally. In this city, “six departments have been brought together in a single location, equipped with a common digital tool: a platform called On Dijon, for greater efficiency in terms of coordination and management,” explains Magali Le Coze, head of the Smart City division at Bouygues Energies & Services, member of the consortium in charge of building and managing the tool. “Take the example of a motorist who has an accident; let’s imagine that he hits a lamppost; the departments will be able to mobilize together to alert the emergency services, inform the population via information panels, put in place the most appropriate signage to avoid traffic jams and repair the equipment.” And to conclude: “The inhabitants are the main beneficiaries of the tool thanks to services that are both closer to their uses and their needs and more efficient, in all areas: cleanliness, mobility, safety, public lighting, etc. By contributing to the construction of a modern and inclusive metropolis, this large-scale Open Data and data governance project contributes to strengthening the attractiveness of the territory.”
The issue is also environmental: relieving traffic congestion gives a “sustainable reduction in air pollution in our cities. Not only during peaks that require urgent treatment of the symptoms. But by taking long-term action to restore quality air every day of the year” emphasised Elisabeth Borne, then Minister for Ecological Transition and Solidarity, at the 19th conference on cities in 2019. Some cities are installing sensors to measure the damage, like Paris with Pollutrack or Nantes, Villeurbanne or Grenoble with AtmoTrack. Tucson (Arizona) and Newark (New York) are entrusting artificial intelligence with the task of gathering and administering data to analyse and even predict their water treatment.
Tools such as the City Information Model simulate the impact of urban changes on the well-being of inhabitants, and help to avoid planning errors (badly designed corona cycleways, forgotten delivery spaces, noise pollution from terraces in the evening, etc.) as well as wasted energy and materials. The Building Information Model is also a useful tool for building modular and better insulated spaces to increase their usage rate.
To involve citizens in their quest for frugality, as well as apartments, some builders provide residents with an application to monitor their energy consumption and optimise management, as in the case of the ABC building in Grenoble, delivered by Linkcity, or Eikenott, an eco-neighbourhood in Gland, in Norman Switzerland (AllThings application).
At the level of the home and the neighbourhood, these applications contribute to simplifying the daily life of users, for example by providing them with bus or tram timetables, and possibly, in the case of the AllThings application, by allowing them to create a mini social support network, to reserve a time slot to use the laundry room, and to pay for this service via their mobile phone.
Dijon is preparing an application at city level, to manage both ones municipal library card and ones urban journeys from a smartphone, optimised thanks to multimodality… At the same time, car-sharing and car-pooling services are trying to establish themselves in the city, such as Mobilize, proposed by Renault, which has already been established in Madrid. However, they require parking areas that cities are not always prepared to provide and, for electric vehicles, the limited number of charging points is a barrier to development.
At the regional level, the Ile-de-France Smart Services platform based on Siradel’s creation of its digital twin (a 3D representation of the region with its 2.5 million buildings), aims to offer the 12 million inhabitants of the Ile-de-France region “innovative services covering a wide range of fields (environment, energy, employment, health, transport, etc.)”, says the website. “My Solar Potential” makes the capacity of a roof to produce solar energy immediately visible, provides information on qualified professionals to install the necessary technology; with “smart work” you can find a workspace near your location for the day or for a shorter period of time, and “my local products” allows you to find the nearest distributors. Open data encourages students and start-ups to propose urban services.
DIGITAL FOR PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY
Are we witnessing the “return of digital citizen democracy”, as the magazine “Smart City” headlined in March 2020? The ConsultVox platform, a tool for consultation and citizen participation, counted “thirty or so requests from all over France during the lockdown” according to the co-founder, Rémi de Saint Aubert. Several cities have created their own platforms during lockdown, to stimulate local life, save businesses but also engage citizens in lockdown-opening up measures as well as in urban planning projects. The website of the Association of French Mayors lists their initiatives.
The Réseau des Quartiers en Transition project, conceived by students at the Centre Michel Serres, involves citizens, local associations, businesses and municipalities in the diagnosis and improvement of their neighbourhood. The platform’s objectives go far beyond those of the DansMaRue app for Paris or RenCitéZen for Rennes, which allow residents and shopkeepers to notify municipal services of the malfunctions they encounter on a daily basis (littering, potholes, damaged street furniture): the network’s goal is to build a low-carbon neighbourhood in 2040 thanks to different, responsible lifestyles that leave no one behind.
Linking cities will not happen without their inhabitants.