“Local genetics” helping connected cities

How do we make the concept of smart cities a reality? Faced with a real profusion of ideas, applications, products and technologies, one might think that the connected city is making progress. Achievements are growing in number, however this does not mean that any real global projects are underlying them. It is necessary to create projects that are compatible with the notion of “local genetics”.

The concept of smart cities or connected cities is not particularly new, although it has become very popular in the media. Also called “intelligent cities”, these are cities which exploit the virtues of new technologies in order to serve a new type of urban development, meeting growth requirements, citizens’ and social aspirations, and ecological needs. On paper, it is promising. On the ground, slow progress is being made, despite the profusion of ideas, applications, products and technologies. Ultimately, few real global smart city projects are actually built.

And why is this? Because most cities focus solely on technological and “immediate” innovation to the detriment of overall strategy. What’s the solution? To create projects that are compatible with the local genetics and return to the concept of service.

Local long-term involvement for smart city projects

One example springs to my mind by way of illustration. A few decades ago, the patisserie industry was transformed. Numerous professionals embarked on creating new products, and this proliferation resulted in a new challenge: the need to differentiate. One city decided to use these ingredients differently to create a project: nougat. This city was Montélimar. Today, there is no doubt about the association between the two.

With this type of project, such strong foundations are sustainable. It conveys an image, an expertise and represents ‐ beyond even the area ‐ specific knowledge, the idea of a city which knows how to break away from the conventional and innovate. Future connected cities should follow the example of this model. Based on real sustainable projects, they should understand, beyond changes, that new technologies encompass more than just technical aspects.

In the same way, smart cities will only really move forward if they are coupled with a natural and indisputable project within an area. It is essential to revive the user-centric notion, however basic, and to avoid a technological mirage in smart cities. Similarly, it is essential to maintain control over economic development. We see a lot of ideas, innovations and initiatives, but scaling up to an industrial level is extremely complicated, sometimes even impossible.

Smart cities will only really progress if they are coupled with a project that is embedded, naturally and indisputably, in an area, according to expertise and the environment.

This is why the concept of “local genetics” is, in my opinion, the best proposal enabling smart cities to move forward. The idea of “local genetics” is therefore to support the various players by respecting their history and what they have already created, whilst at the same time developing a project focussed on unique, innovative and personalised expertise.

An approach based on digital transformation and co‐innovation

Firstly, this involves identifying a project that unites and transmits values in order to orchestrate all of these diffuse achievements and to thus create the digital footprint of the area. The critical point of this approach is the creation of a suitable model, both from an economical and technical viewpoint. This may appear obvious, however there are few cities that apply this principle.

Then it is necessary, in practice, to roll out an approach in which the first step consists of becoming immersed in what has been done at ground level. Thus, like a city I recently visited in south-east France, we could think about seeking the help of a historian in a diachronic approach, which would enable us to propose fundamental principles, in line with the culture of the area.

This anchoring will then enable different ideas to be bounced around within the same framework, in close connection with the governance of the city. After this step, it would be advisable to design and test local services. The aim is both to create value and jobs.

Authorities are good breeding grounds for partnerships and experimentation in order to co-innovate.

I also advise working in a small team, formed of individuals from diverse backgrounds, which gives a certain level of agility even to the point of being able to innovate during meetings on occasions.

A project that breaks with market customs

Finally, let’s not be afraid to put an end to various experiences, to POC (proof of concept), to providential technologies of all types in order to switch to “stone 1” mode: let’s work together on the foundations of the future smart city in terms of social relations, economic models and digital sustainability! That is how major ambitious projects in several European cities have already been launched in the following fields: transformation of public transport confronted with the mobility needs of a company with a considerable presence in a city (similar topic for GAFA* in San Francisco), structuring local management that is completely digitalised and rolled out across the board or even the creation of a digital harbor with a Mediterranean influence.

This topic is the main concern of digital initiatives which easily find a technical trajectory, but have great difficulty finding a suitable business model. These efforts must allow all aspects of a smart city project to be harmonised: technology, citizen‐centrism and economy. An approach which will enable digital transformation to change both cities and its decision-making bodies; which will facilitate partnerships between authorities and the private sector, and will guarantee the possibility of “co‐innovating”.

Identify a project that unites and transmits values in order to orchestrate all of these diffuse achievements and to thus create the digital footprint of the area. The critical point of this approach is the emphasis on a tailored deployment model, both from an economical as well as a technical viewpoint.

As local authorities are good places for exchange and experimentation, beyond co‐innovation, they will facilitate the implementation of business models. It is therefore necessary to believe in the transformation by expanding onto other horizons and to believe in visions stemming from other models and new approaches whilst listening to unusual players.

* GAFA: Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon which are the four biggest American companies that dominate the digital market

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Laurent Coussonnet

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