What is a smart city? These French graduates traveled the world for a year to discover
Frustrated with the term “smart city” being used as a silent buzzword, two French graduates traveled to seven cities around the world to find out how cities are actually using technology to improve our lives.
Benoît Gufflet, 26, and Dimitri Kremp, 24, met three and a half years ago during their master’s studies in Paris.
After graduating, they left the French capital and left with their backpacks in January 2020, traveling to Rio de Janeiro, Medellin, Toronto and Singapore. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, temporarily halted their plans, but in May 2020 they resumed their journey and continued to Helsinki, Stockholm and Tallinn.
They were motivated by their “passion for the urban environment and their passion to understand how technology can transform cities to understand what the future of our cities will be,” Gufflet told Euronews Next.
What is a “smart city”?
Cisco and IBM developed the smart city concept in the 2000s and both produce annual rankings. Cisco defines a smart city as a city that “uses digital technology to connect, protect and improve the lives of citizens”.
“You have rankings every year trying to reward the best smart city strategies in the world for cities. And you don’t understand at the end of the day what’s the difference between cities, what’s really behind the word,” he said. declared Gufflet.
Smart cities work by using Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, video cameras, social media, and other inputs to provide city authorities and citizens with constant feedback, which they can then use to take more informed decisions.
“People tend to think that today’s technologies, sensors and digital tools can dramatically improve how cities work,” Kremp said.
“And what we have studied in the field shows that today, the real impact, the real concrete impact of these technologies within cities is still limited.”
In fact, the couple completely abandoned the term smart city and preferred to call them “learning cities”.
They define a learning city as one that “gradually learns to use and deploy these digital tools in order to become progressively smarter”.
To learn more about what works and what doesn’t, during their travels, they surveyed hundreds of citizens, public authorities, start-ups and large companies, academics and experts from around the world.
What they discovered has already had huge implications. They’ve compiled their research into a little book called Across The Blocks, which is catching the attention of local municipalities.
The graduates even presented their findings, which caught the attention of many companies, to the mayor of the port city of Le Havre in northern France, former Prime Minister Édouard Philippe.
The French duo were sponsored by French internet and mobile phone company Bouygues, its urban development sector Bouygues Immobilier and Wavestone, a French IT service management company, to use the data to see how a city can or cannot be transformed for a smarter life.
What did they learn on their expedition?
“We have been really amazed by Estonia and Tallinn for so many reasons, geographic and historical,” said Kremp.
“Estonians have a really different relationship with technology. They are digital natives. So, we were able to see how when the municipality or the administration launched new digital services, we could see how quickly it was appropriated by the population ”.
He notes that this is the striking difference with countries like France. When the country launched its TousAntiCovid COVID-19 tracking app, the French took the time to really understand how to use it.
The French pair were able to see how Singapore, which is currently ranked as the smartest city in the world, made best use of digital technologies at the start of the pandemic.
They reached the city in March 2020 and underwent 14 days of quarantine. But they say their Singapore study was a highlight.
“We really got to see how this city has very effectively deployed digital tools to mitigate the spread of the virus and help people adapt their behaviors to this threat,” Kremp told Euronews Next.
This included a portal unveiled in Singapore called Safe Distance @ Parks, he pointed out, which allows the public to check the number of visitors to parks and green spaces in real time.
“We were amazed at how quickly the smart nation was able to develop these tools and how quickly they were appropriated by the people,” Kremp said.
How to make European cities smarter
But they say taking a formula from one city and implementing it in another doesn’t work.
“Every city, every country has its own culture, its own technological development and you can’t copy and paste a project,” Gufflet said.
“You can’t take this innovation from Singapore and bring it to London because cities have to have their own philosophy, their own smart city strategy.”
In Stockholm, Gufflet discovered that the idea of a smart city was only used as a tool.
“He [Stockholm] just uses these digital tools to achieve a specific goal, ”he said. “And the target identified by Stolkhom was its 2040 target, which is to achieve carbon neutrality. All the projects that you will see in Stockholm must have this in mind “.
Gufflet says it’s essential for European cities to set a goal when trying to use smart city tools.
“If you don’t have a clear goal and just do it as a technical mission for the technology, it will just fail,” he said.
The couple also advise experimenting with the technology to see what works and what doesn’t.
“Trying to transform [cities] to tackle these huge issues, they can be health, it can be health issues, maybe diversity, they can be the environment, but in order to do that they have to try to test so many projects as they can, the need to test and try new things, ”Gufflet explains.
“And that’s why we say learning cities because cities have to learn what they want to become.”
What’s next for learning travelers?
Since graduating from their master’s program, they are keen to put their experience into practice.
Kremp started working for an investment fund dedicated to the smart city idea.
“We are investing in new smart city and real estate ecosystem start-ups,” he said.
“So it’s a great way to reinvest everything I learned during this project in a more concrete way.”
For Gufflet, he says he wants to continue to try to explore these transformations of the smart city.
“I’m not sure exactly how, but I really believe this is just the start of creating something related to understanding the future of citizens,” he said.