Civil engineering Professor Isam Shahrour believes that a fully smart city is a rarity. A smart city must be built over the long term with the aim of improving the residents’ way of life.

By 2050 65% of the world’s population will be living in cities, which will be increasingly connected and rich in data. Many cities are also investing in green energy and/or are looking to become smart. But what do we actually mean by that? What exactly is a smart city? At the Grand Nord Digital Forum which took place in Roubaix in northern France on 24 March, Professor Isam Shahrour, Head of the Civil Engineering and Geo-Environment Laboratory (LGCgE) at Lille University, explained his concept of the ‘smart city’. As coordinator of the SunRise smart city project running in the vicinity of Lille, he investigates on a campus scale the challenges facing those of would-be smart cities.  He spoke to L’Atelier about his work and ideas.

L’Atelier: The term ‘smart city’ covers a number of concepts, sometimes it’s about being ‘connected’, ‘sustainable’, and/or ‘citizen-friendly’. So what’s the ideal smart city in your opinion?

Isam Shahrour: I believe that a smart city should combine three aspects. The first is technology, which enables us to ‘connect’ on a large scale. And I should point out that when I use the word ‘connect’, this includes connections between people, between objects, and between people and objects. It’s something quite amazing to say that a city can be fully connected. People are connected in groups, with the local authorities, with arts centres, libraries, and also with the infrastructure – water, energy, and so on. On all these networks there are devices which allow data to be gathered, stored and analysed in order to measure flows, monitor water quality, power voltage, etc.  And by aggregating and cross-comparing lots of data on the way we do things, we can also try to ensure we achieve secure and optimal function. That’s the first thing.

The second aspect is that a ‘smart city’ must be a fully connected city where information circulates. Once the data has been gathered and analysed, it needs to be shared so that decision-making can be more of a shared activity. Citizens will collect data and respond, and we’ll thus move to the next stage of collective intelligence. Partners, operators and everyone involved will work together in ‘smart’ mode to improve citizens’ way of life. So a ‘smart city’ doesn’t just mean a connected city. It will be a city where information is shared and serves as a stepping-stone towards collective intelligence. We may need information and communication technology to monitor what’s happening but first and foremost building a smart city requires human intelligence.

What role should the public authorities play? Should they be initiating smart city projects or should that come from private initiatives? What’s the role of each player in building the smart city?

Well, you cannot have a smart city without a political decision at the highest level, that’s just impossible. The ‘smart city’ concept implies a major transformation in the way a city is managed, a culture change, changes in management practices, in the organisation of services, in the way data is used. There has to be strong resolve behind the project but the efforts of the public authorities will not be enough. The private sector will need to play a very important role: energy network operators, telecoms companies and especially the private citizen. This is the third key aspect of a ‘smart city’. A smart city project cannot succeed if citizens aren’t involved. That’s just not possible, because it’s basically the citizen we’re working for, and if we can’t manage to get people to buy into the smart city, we’ll have failed somewhere. A smart city project cannot be imposed from the top down, you have to get the authorities, the operators and citizen representatives around the table. That’s the only way progress will be made.

With the SunRise project, you set out to demonstrate that it was possible to build a smart city. Yours is the size of a campus. Could you tell us more about it?

We launched the project five years ago. At the time people weren’t talking very much about smart cities. We had a lot of discussions with city water companies on how we should tackle the subject. It was then that we realised that we needed a model city – not just a mock-up of a few buildings but the equivalent of a large district or a small town – where we could test ideas, build networks, gather data, interact with the students, and so on – basically a place where we could do everything I’ve just mentioned as being part and parcel of a truly smart city.

We needed an example and the one we took was really relevant because it enables us to act fast on all the networks. A lot of partners came on board very quickly – water companies, the local authorities, a number of startups, lots of students also came along, and this enabled us to make very fast progress with the SunRise project.

Did you draw inspiration from any existing smart city?

No, we were among the pioneers. The smart city is a process that requires time. Some cities claim to be ‘smart’, when in fact they’re ‘smart’ only in some respects – sometimes the transport aspect or air quality, sometimes it’s the city’s assistance/guidance services, and so on. We’re still very far away from having the kind of city I described a moment ago, where objects are really connected with people and where the data is properly analysed. As far as I know, the most advanced example in this area is what we ourselves are doing: in the same space we’ve optimised water, energy and telecommunications. We’re further ahead than many others but the road is long. We’re talking here about transforming a city, so you can understand that it takes some time.

What are you working on now, what do you still have to do to make the SunRise project an even smarter city?

We still have a lot to do on mobility. The same goes for interacting with students, where we could provide a range of services. We would also like to install equipment in all buildings so as to be able to control the heating and ventilation according to actual use. All this is underway, as is our use of renewable energy.

What are the priorities for smart city investment in France? If you had to advise a local authority, what should they do first?

This is a major question because every city is a specific case. There’s no unique model. There are cities where the biggest problem is water, for others it will be public lighting, and for others electricity grids, sewage systems, etc. Each city has its own circumstances. This is why the first phase is to diagnose the situation: analyse, see what state the city’s legacy systems are in, look at the networks, work out what needs to be upgraded, what citizens want, how willing infrastructure operators are to participate, what investment is available, and so on. Based on this assessment, you can then establish a list of priorities and draw up a route map towards building your smart city.

So it’s a process, and basically every smart city is different, but even so are there some smart cities which are characteristic of developed countries and others which are more characteristic of developing countries?

Let’s say that for developing countries we’re usually talking about new construction that is often warranted by growth. Rolling out a smart city project for a brand new city is easier and, in addition, it helps you to make cost savings. In terms of proportions as well it makes a lot of sense. Take for instance a country like Morocco or Tunisia. If the political resolve is there, everything can go ahead fairly quickly. In cities that are already developed, the networks are buried, you have to go and find them, and today’s economic climate isn’t too good either, which makes things a bit difficult. The ‘smart city’ tag is used more as a sort of PR exercise, in order to appeal to people, but when you analyse the situation in detail it turns out to be far from a real smart city project.

By Sophia Qadiri
Managing Editor & Journalist