It’s not a good idea to turn public spaces into digital havens just for the sake of it. Every new technology or service must respond to a genuine need.


Interview with Albert Asseraf, Director for Strategy, Studies, and Marketing, France at JC Decaux, on the sidelines of the New Cities Summit conference, held at La Defense (Paris), on 14-16 May.


L'Atelier : How is technology being integrated into public spaces?

Albert Asseraf : Having filled all interior spaces such as offices, homes and airports, digital is now going into public spaces. We’ve already seen digital screens appear across towns. But technology must have real usefulness. Installing smart terminals in public spaces in towns only makes sense if we establish that it’s useful for a majority of people. Otherwise you’re just cluttering up the public space. Such installations must meet the practical needs of the passers-by, who want to have more and more information, in real time, and that also means giving them the right information at the right moment. Very soon the smartphone will be a commodity, and people will expect free wifi access everywhere they go. So we have to give them more than they already have in their pockets in the form of their smartphones. This is for example what JC Decaux was aiming for with our outdoor information terminals in Paris – i.e. offering applications which you can’t get on a smartphone, given that the Apple App store has become the benchmark for information services. Our terminals can, for example, provide you with an itinerary for exploring an area of the town, according to the amount of time you have.

Could these new terminals alter our environment?

In any city there are two kinds of spaces. Firstly, there are waiting areas, such as bus shelters, where people could be provided with access to new services. Then there are the areas for resting or for work. These days in Paris, for example, if you want to work or relax, there’s your home, a few public benches, and the cafés. With technology we can create spaces for new uses. This is what’s been done at the Escale Numérique, (‘Digital Stopover’) at the Champs-Elysées roundabout in Paris. It’s an Internet-connected area to relax, work, or look for information, which was developed following a ‘call for projects’ from the City of Paris. JC Decaux has also been thinking about entertainment. For example, we’re about to install two digital tables in a public garden so that people can access game applications. Technology can also help rebuild an area. We’ve set up an e-village at the Gare de Lyon, (a main railway station in Paris). There’s a set of interactive terminals providing information and also displaying small ads from people and local businesses in the area. The station could thus become an information crossroads and eventually perhaps a place to actually carry out business transactions.

What’s the role of each party?

First of all it’s of course up to the city authorities to decide whether or not to put out a tender for this kind of project. They will have to decide what type of project they want, the specific services required and so on.  The authorities will have to analyse the needs of the local citizens and see what sort of innovations could help to meet those needs. Of course, a company like JC Decaux is ready to get involved in such projects – that’s our business. And then you have to settle on a business model. Our business model is that the advertising pays for everything, so the setup is free of charge for the local authority concerned. An installation like this should galvanise advertisers. They can adapt their communication using geolocation, suiting it to a given place, for example. But at the same time they must show respect for people’s privacy and for public spaces, and offer services which are genuinely useful.