The urbanization of the world now takes place in the digital era, where connectivity is a core feature of urban functions. New, smarter cities are emerging. But technology falls short of creating urban dynamics by itself. Rather than just implementing smart devices, the challenge is empowerment and participation.

In 2011, the consulting firm ABI Research published a report on the fast expanding market of smart city projects. By 2016, 116 billion dollars will be invested in wireless networks, digital governing, intelligent public transport systems and waste recycling devices.

A trip to New Songdo City
40 miles south of Seoul, South Korea, a gigantic construction site of new type was launched in 2001: an artificial island connected to the mainland by an 8-miles long bridge. The island supports homes, universities, a hospital, museums, a park with artificial canals and underground (at 99%) parking slots. With its groundbreaking infrastructure of data retrieval and broadcasting, New Songdo City is more than a new city. It’s also said to be an “intelligent” city, obeying to only one principle: universal connectivity.

Even cans that end up the garbage can be traced. But that’s not the end of it: universal videoconference system, cameras on the roads and in front of buildings, registration-plate readers to maximize traffic efficiency… Any information can be collected, processed and used by a central computer to offer interactive services to the people who live in the area. For instance, the inhabitants can use the same chip card to open their flat, lock their car, or pay in the supermarket. They can also use their computer to seek medical attention, follow a yoga class or carry administrative formalities remotely. These online services help to reduce the need for transport, thus achieving sustainability – just as the enormous rainwater harvesting system does.

The real property programs of New Songdo were sold out in no time and 65000 inhabitants are expected by 2018. By coming into life, New Songdo has embodied a new model of urbanism that does not yet have defined name. Whether we call it city 2.0, digital city, intelligent city, e-city, u-town or smart city, this model presents a networked city where ICTs are a vehicle for community intelligence, for sustainable ecologic and social growth, as well as participatory urban planning.

The case of New Songdo is not an isolated one: PlanIT Valley in Portugal, Pegasus Global Holding in New Mexico, Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, I-City in Malaysia, T-City in Germany… The city 2.0 already exists. It has been implemented almost identically in Algeria and China and serves as commercial showcase for a set of technological services. But what if it were only a gadget, a sophisticated technological product aimed at a minority of high-end consumers?

A city that forgets it is a city?
The question is worth asking: is it still a city? The simple fact that it was constructed on an island suggests it may be a technological ghetto. In La Condition urbaine (“The Urban Condition”, Paris: Seuil, 2005), Olivier Mongin reminds us that technical capabilities alone do not make a city. The city dynamics is the result of bringing together different populations in a problematic and fecund synthesis, which continuingly fuels the renew process. The urban experience grows from tensions and possibilities that emerge from these differences. The New Songdo model on the other hand is more of a gated city, by many aspects: a homogeneous space from a sociological and urban point of view, which fossilizes social destinies and undermines part of the city’s energy.

In an article for McKinsey Digital, Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology at Columbia University and former co-director of the economy department of the Global Chicago Project expressed some concerns about the so called smart cities: when we speak of intelligent cities, we often think of technical systems that deurbanize the city. We must work at urbanizing technologies rather than use technologies that deurbanize the city. Technologies must be adaptable and the city must be hackable. Otherwise, we would kill all the adaptation capabilities that have made its strength throughout centuries.

Experiments such as New Songdo also raise the issue of individual freedom. In a city where everything is connected, could privacy be at risk? The transparency promoted by 2.0 cities is a double-edged issue according to sociologist Bruno Marzloff, who has been part for over ten years of the Chronos Group, a laboratory of innovating mobility bringing together transports, intelligence, the media and the city: “As far as urban data is concerned, the worst is to be feared. Misuse of data, intrusion in private life, vulnerability of systems… there are many risks.”

The friendly mask of technological cities (Smiley City…) can thus hide a hundred-eyed monster, as for Argus. The New Songdo utopia reminds of Michel Foucault’s panoptic in Discipline and Punish or George Orwell’s 1984. The connected city opens the doors to generalized monitoring.

However, New Songdo does nothing else than use in its conception a set of urban capabilities that are already present in our cities, only making them more systematic. Sensors, video-surveillance cameras, thermometers, wireless networks, 3G and 4G antennas, massive use of mobile phones by the population, satellites, chips, multi-service cards, public screens, QR-Codes, portals for town information, information enhanced maps… We just have to look around us: the city is in fact, already digital.

The data deluge produced by all these equipment cover it all and “adds” multiform links. This whole set of links drafts a third, less threatening, face for the city of the future. Beyond generalized surveillance, the essence of the digital city lies in its collaborative capabilities.

The 2.0 spirit

The expression “city 2.0” refers to web 2.0. Fabien Eychenne, from the Fondation Internet Nouvelle Génération, reminds us of how American editor Tim O’Reilly invented the expression in 2004: « Something crucial had happened on the web. With no major technical evolution involved, without any central decision, a new set of tools (blogs, RSS threads), new platforms (social networks, video sharing sites), new practices, from providers and users, have transformed the place that the web occupies in the life of billions of people.” Thus, the city 2.0 is just as much about personalizing exchanges as it is a massive practice.

Let us stress on the fact that “no major technologic evolution” is involved in the rise of web 2.0 either. In the same way, for Nigel Jacob, co-founder of the Office of New Urban Mechanics of the Boston City Hall, the city 2.0 is not only about technology. “Urbanism 2.0 is a vision of the city that is created with its inhabitants and with tools, digital or not”.

On his side, sociologist Alain Bourdin reduced the weight of the expression “digital city”, in which he sees mainly an attractive label for local politicians wishing to use ICTs in order to increase the attractiveness of their territory. For Bourdin, digital cities do nothing more than improve existing services – there’s nothing ground-breaking in their offer: “Cities are outdated by innovation movement from the base. Users invent new services through new social practices.”

Just as the web 2.0, the real novelty is less about technological rupture than about the transformation of the use of the city, as said by Fabien Girardin, co-founder of Lift Agency. Citizens become co-designers. “In Barcelona for instance, motor-disabled people have been given cameras to report the obstacles they encounter in the street. Why not grant to all citizens the sensor ability than only urbanism professionals were supposed to carry out?”

Towards new uses

Visually, digital intrusions into the physical space of a city are rather discrete. But they are many. QR codes, indicators of Bluetooth and WIFI networks, invitations to follow the Facebook page or Twitter thread of an institution… The signage is already set up and customs follow closely.

In the case of transports, ICTs have already reconfigured the city space. At the University of Technology of Delft, researchers from the “Next Generation of Infrastructures” lab have showed that the greatest transformation that has affected urban infrastructures is de-partitioning. That’s an idea shared by Georges Amar, director of the prospective for Paris subway. According to Amar, the metro, which has been mono-functional during all of the 20th century, must respond to this break-up: “Why couldn’t the metro be imagined as source of urban heating or of logistics, like a smart grid of electric surface mobility, platform of daily life services, a 2.0 newspaper of the city and of culture?”

The already classical example of free bicycles combined with the surge of smartphones is the perfect situation for integrating most of the issues at stake in the digital city. Through the reconfiguration of the road network, it has modified public space and restructured traffic flows. By adding to the global offer of common transport, it has changed urban behaviors. By striving to reduce the importance of cars, it follows to an ambition of sustainability. Its use is based on an essential computer infrastructure. Last, mobile geo-localization applications offer real services to the users. Opening the linked data (localization and availability) generates an ecosystem of innovating applications.

The links between physical areas and digital areas in a city open a field of research of their own. A conventional approach consists in separating real and virtual spaces. For the economist Alain Rallet (Paris Sud University), “to speak of the digital city as a disconnected, in-the-air city is a wrong image. It’s more hybridization than opposition.”. This vision is shared by most urbanism researchers. The rise of ICTs will not dissolve the city or free us form physical constraints but on the contrary, help us locate in space.

One of the indicators of this tension between physical and virtual territories is the rise of maps, which not only serve to locate ourselves but also to project information. Through a map, the city becomes an open platform of innovation for interconnected users to share information. In Los Angeles, the community site Healthy City offers maps to improve access to health and social services in the entire region. All data on this platform is free: free for private individuals, associations and political parties to use.

A new urban citizenship
The digital city reconfigures the role of institutions which “are less concerned by planning, deciding, producing, commanding and more by directing, stimulating, observing, putting into relationship, orienting, advising, supervising”, suggest Daniel Kaplan and Thierry Marcou. It’s the idea that drives the opening of public data to territorial collectivities: by putting at disposal of third parties data produced during the exercise of functions (budget data, waste, habitat, education…) the local public authorities stimulates social and civic innovation without being directly “in charge”. Users and social network contribute to enriching the management of the city. On the opposite side, New Songdo is driven by players such as Google, IBM, Cisco or Accenture who are in charge of processing and managing urban data. In front of these two lines of evolution, Bruno Marzloff is very clear: “In this new game of players, public authorities must find a place and define their means to target urban data towards public and republican aims. We are only at the brink of the sensitive town and the place the urban digital needs to be built.”

The prospect of participation and collaboration is appealing but the opening of new possibilities raises the question of the capacity of people and groups to use them.

The concept of “digital divide” must be refined, since in developed countries, it is no longer a problem of connectivity: in France, in 2011, 71% of the population has access to the Internet on PC and 35% on mobile. But there are also different uses which are based on cognitive parameters, thus social and cultural factors. Depending on the cognitive we dispose of (which normally depends of the education and social milieu), we will be more or less capable of using ICTs and related applications.

These differences raise democratic as well as administrative problems. All researchers agree that the web 2.0 could potentially bring very much to the implication of citizens in the life of their city. But the prospect of “smart city” in a digital divide context suggests that democracy in the interactive space could be heavily undermined, as remarked by geographer Jacques Levy, who puts into question the capability of technological devices to enable “a representative picture of the population. Like in other classic consulting processes, it is always the same people who speak”. Besides, the data retrieved from the sensors will be immediately biased and at the same time, it’s difficult to imagine that local public authorities wouldn’t use them to elaborate their policies. The risk is to aim an ideal citizen – a virtual one, in the double meaning of the term.

Without any doubt, the key to all these questions is empowerment: granting autonomy and responsibility to the citizen.

So the installation of urban 2.0 infrastructures and the access to these devices are but one side of the coin. We need to ask ourselves which of these devices will really enable empowerment and participation. That’s clearly the limit of the so called smart cities. Beyond the communication made around these infrastructures, enabling the inhabitants to take over to the city 2.0 requires working on support, formation and knowledge share. Today, we find several interesting initiatives supported by local authorities. The town of Brest, France leads a training program on online writing which is connected to a Wiki project, aiming at going beyond the digital divide.

The big digital service providers aren’t too much concerned today. It’s not the core of their business and besides, the support market is smaller than the equipment market. But the most interesting experiments involve caring about participation.

For the architect and engineer Carlo Ratti, head of the SENSEable City Laboratory of the MIT, the videoconference system of New Songdo can envy other initiatives such as “BigApp Challenges” at New York, which rewards the best urban propositions by the inhabitants based on the data collected by the local authorities: “It’s the mission of the administration to listen to the citizens and develop with them common visions. Indeed, some experiments may serve as models for all but each town must develop its own resources and its own conditions”.


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  • La condition urbaine : La ville à l'heure de la mondialisation
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  • New Songdo
  • BigApp Challenges (New York)
  • Healthy City (Los Angeles)
  • Smart city technologies will grow fivefold to exceed $39 billion in 2016 (ABI Research, 2011)
  • Next Generation of Infrastructures (University of Delft)
  • Aire numérique (Revue Urbanisme, Chronos, in French)
  • La recherche urbaine à l’heure de la ville 2.0 (Fondation Internet Nouvelle Génération, in French)
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