Smart cities: “it is only through multidisciplinary research that we can rise to these challenges”

The smart city is becoming an increasingly tangible reality for citizens in urban areas, with the efforts made to increase mobility and energy management being obvious examples. But is more efficient transport and optimized energy consumption sufficient to define a smart city? Being a member of the jury of the international Prizes Le Monde-Smart Cities that will be awarded in Singapor on June 2, Deputy President of IMT Francis Jutand explained to us why smart cities must be considered in a general and systemic way.


Is it possible to reduce smart cities to cities with lower energy consumption?

Francis Jutand: Definitely not. The impact of digital technology on cities goes far beyond energy-saving issues, even if this is an important aspect of it. Of course, it allows smart technology to be used in energy monitoring for buildings and vehicles, but digital technology also plays in important role in managing mobility and interactions. For example, it eliminates the need for physical transport by allowing for telecommuting, coworking and exchanges of information in general. It could even allow for a more adaptive organization of mobility — although there is a long way still to go in this matter.


What do you mean by more adaptive organization?

FJ: One of the problems affecting cities is congestion linked to peaks in traffic. Managing congestion is a tricky systemic challenge which has to combine a number of solutions, such as organization of work, staggered management of office opening hours, proaction and dynamic reaction. There is a whole organizational infrastructure to be established, to which digital technology can contribute.


Besides the digitization of services, will smart cities also be a source of apprehension for citizens?

FJ: Digital technology allows us to provide new functionalities. Everyone experiences digital technology and its services and perceives a certain number of obvious advantages. Digital technology also concerns future problems to be resolved. In the case of digital cities, one of the most interesting ones is anticipating its growing complexity. Infrastructures are being digitized and can be interfaced. At the same time, humans are benefitting from increased capacities for interaction, while at the same time autonomous entities are being developed — such as autonomous cars — which incorporate intelligent elements that also have a high capacity for interaction with infrastructures. Therefore, there needs to be an efficient management of exchanges between agents, humans and infrastructures.


Is digital technology the only field that must addressed when considering the city of the future? 

FJ: Smart and sustainable cities — I always add the word “sustainable”, because it is vital — must be considered from several perspectives. In terms of research, the subjects concerned are digital technology and big data, of course, but also supply chains, air quality, social and economic impacts etc. It is only through multidisciplinary research that we can truly rise to these challenges. This is what we try to do at Institut Mines-Télécom, with schools that are very active in their area and involved in local projects linked to smart cities. In addition to their strength in research, they are an important lever for innovation for designing products and services linked to smart and sustainable cities, and more particularly by fostering entrepreneurship through their students.


If digital technology is not the only subject of reflection for cities of the future, why does it seem to be an ever-present topic of discussion?

FJ: In the currents temporality, the technologies that increase our capacity are digital technologies. They lead to the most innovation. They are used not only for automation, but also for developing interactions and providing algorithmic intelligence and autonomy in different products and services. Interaction implies connection. I would add that it is also necessary to manage the securing of transactions both in terms of reliability of operations and prevention of malicious actions. Today, digital technology is a driving force as well a guide, but the unique thing about it is that it comes out in waves. It is therefore necessary to combine short and long-term views of its impact and work on creativity and innovation. This is why openness and accessibility of data are important points.


Is a smart city necessarily one in which all data is open?

FJ: The debate on this matter is too often caricatural and simplified through the question of “should data be open or not?”. In reality, the debate plays out on a different level. Data is not static, and the needs vary. There is a cost to supplying raw data. An extreme position in favor of complete openness would very quickly become financially impossible, and it would be difficult to produce the new data we need. Besides this, there is the issue of data enrichment: we must be able to encourage approaches for a common commodity in which any citizen can work on the data, as well as commercial approaches for developing new services. The balance is hard to find, and will probably depend on the characteristics of each city.


You mentioned the cost of digital technology and development, and its energy impact. If local governments can’t bear the entire cost, how can we guarantee homogeneous development within a city or between cities?

 FJ: First of all, it’s true that there are sometimes concerns about the idea that digital technology itself consumes a lot of energy. We must remember that, for the moment, the proportion of a city’s overall energy consumption accounted for by digital technology is very small compared with buildings and transport. Secondly, given that local governments can’t bear the full cost, it is not inconceivable that private-sector-based initiatives will foster and generate differences in the city or between cities. It is extremely difficult to plan the homogenization of cities, nor is it desirable because they are living, and therefore evolving, entities.

The most likely outcome is that sustainable smart cities will develop per district with purely private offerings that will be naturally selective because they will target solvent markets, but which will also leave room for equally welcome civic initiatives. The whole process will be regulated by local government. But this is something we are used to: it’s typically the case with fiber optic broadband and its roll-out. In any case, it is essential to make public policies clear. If we don’t make them clear, people may react by adopting a defensive precautionary position and refusing the development of smart cities. For now, this is not the case, and lots of cities such as Lyon, Rennes, Bordeaux, Nice, Montpellier, Grenoble, Paris, Nantes are determinedly tackling the problem.


Could the rise of connected cities lead to the development of new networks between megacities?

FJ: Megacities are increasingly powerful economic entities all over the world. A general expansion of the economic power of cities is also taking place. There are elements of an economic impetus which could lead to shared forms of mutualization or innovation that go much further than previous twinning projects, or even competition. It is therefore likely that economic competition between nations will move toward competition between megacities and the areas that support them.


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