If they are to make a success of their moves to go digital, city authorities need to safeguard the interests of all its various components… and to take a chance on creative disorder.

Digital technology and Big Data changing the way cities are run

Big Data offers local authorities a whole range of opportunities, whether we are talking about improving local authority services in general or analysing population flows and optimising transport systems. Nowadays no major city can afford to turn its back on Big Data. However, this is neither a magic formula nor a mere matter of routine. Local authorities cannot simply decree the adoption of Big Data and expect it to solve the whole range of urban issues in one fell swoop. Cities have always been complex structures, and in the era of the ‘smart city’, that complexity is increasing. If they are to adapt successfully to the digital era, the local authorities need to take into account the various strata that make up the city. “Modern Man is a city dweller,‟ underlined Alain Staron, Digital SVP for Strategy, Offers and Partnerships at French transnational utility services provider Véolia, during a discussion to mark the launch of the Innovation Awards contest organised by French daily newspaper Le Monde in partnership with L’Atelier BNP Paribas. He pointed out that “85% of people in the West live in cities, and twenty cities in the world now have over 15 million inhabitants." The city is now more than ever a fundamental part of our existence. The digital transformation of cities is thus a testing bench which will enable us to see where and how we’ll be living in the near future. A city comprises three different types of players – first of all its citizens, secondly the companies and businesses which make up the economic ecosystem, and thirdly the politicians responsible for city governance

Alain Staron stressed that the digital transition needs to take full account of these different components. For instance: “If you’re thinking about how to include Airbnb in the urban ecosystem, you’ll have to ask yourself a number of questions. Do your citizens want to accommodate people in their homes in return for a fee? Are the professionals – first and foremost the hotel industry – happy about that? And do the local authorities believe that this way of doing things will help to improve people-flows?‟  Often the interests of the different parties do not coincide. So, the process of digitisation will require flexibility and sensitivity.

City residents as data emitters

This is all the more true since, pointed out Daniel Kaplan, founder and CEO of Paris-based think tank FING – ‘Next Generation Internet Foundation’ –  the digital revolution has changed the roles of the different players and altered the power relationships: “We can’t go on using the same methods as before. Roles are being re-defined, ‟ he argued. Big Data, for example, has transformed every citizen into a data emitter.

Explained Alain Staron: “With the surge in the use of wearables and smartphone apps, we’re now all emitters of data. In exchange, we enjoy tailored services. Netflix provides us with the video series we’re interested in, Amazon offers the books we want to buy, Uber memorises the addresses we go to on a regular basis. All this makes our lives easier. Being data emitters also optimises the way our cities interact with us. For instance, the public transportation system can be adapted using data on population flows.”

However, all this is not an unambiguous boon. The phenomenon can prove to be a double-edged sword: citizens enjoy the services they receive in return for their data, but many are nevertheless worried about the potential threat to their privacy. Daniel Kaplan suggested that the majority of citizens feel those who collect data have more to gain from the process than they themselves do. It follows that in the digital era city residents will have to be given more air-time in the local government debate, which is all too often monopolised by the new technology experts. The big question, said Kaplan, is: “How can we create a world where we talk more about the overall choices first, and only then about models and systems? How can we give more room to ordinary citizens – as opposed to experts – in the discussion?

Organised chaos

Governance is in itself becoming more complex, as digital technologies and Big Data analysis make life easier at the individual level but at the same time more complicated at the level of the community. On the one hand, information circulates more efficiently: the Internet replaces paper and word-of-mouth, and enables people to access all kinds of information instantaneously and comprehensively. On public transport, timetables are displayed in real time and navigation apps help you get around more easily.

Daniel Kaplan argued that “so many of us have now become more efficient that in fact the combinations are infinitely more complex. We’ve pumped the gains we’ve obtained from digital tools back into a wider range of possibilities and into greater complexity.‟  He stressed however that this is not about dysfunctionality arising from poor management of the new technologies, but is all part of a trend inherent to cities. “The only truly ‘smart’ cities, those that have been built from scratch in emerging countries, are actually uninhabited – no-one lives there because it’s boring,” he pointed out, underlining: “Instead of the expression ‘smart city’, which is heavily over-used, I personally prefer the term ‘digitised real city’ – i.e. a city that’s moving gradually towards digitisation as residents increasingly come to use the technology. When we talk about Big Data, we often think of harmonious management, holistic knowledge that enables the authorities to manage their city optimally. But in actual fact it’s the exact opposite! Governance in the digital era means managing an increasingly chaotic world. And that’s good! Cities are by nature teeming, disordered things.

So, what conclusions can be drawn for smart cities? Kaplan argues: “Of course this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to control anything. We do need to make the major collective decisions, establish rules for using data, rules regarding the ethics of artificial intelligence, and many more things besides. But the struggle to implement them will be more like an Aikido contest than a boxing match‟.

By Guillaume Renouard