To mark the recent awarding of the ‘Le Monde’ Smart Cities Innovation Prize, which was partnered by L’Atelier BNP Paribas, we asked Gérard Collomb, a Senator and Mayor of the Lyon metropolis area, to talk about his vision of the Smart City.

Lyon Smart City “trying to create an ecosystem close to what they have in Silicon Valley”

Lyon, the city whose elected head Gérard Collomb currently is, has invested in smart power grids and smart mobility in order to enable the 1.3 million inhabitants of the Lyon agglomeration – including 144,500 students and a vibrant startup ecosystem, with 15,000 companies being created every year – to live in a real ‘smart city’.

Le Maire de Lyon, Gérard Collomb

Gérard Collomb, member of the French Senate and Mayor of the City of Lyon

L’Atelier: So when did Greater Lyon start its transition to digital technology? What were your first steps towards becoming a smart city?

Gérard Collomb - Lyon Smart City started barely ten years ago when we set up a number of partnerships with large firms. Electric utility company EDF had chosen Lyon to test out its Linky connected meters. But the foundation stone for the smart city edifice was the rollout of our self-service bicycles – Vélo’v – the Lyon equivalent of the Vélib’ in Paris. I like to remind people, by the way, that we were groundbreakers as regards the self-service bicycle idea, [editor’s note: the Lyon Vélo'v came into service in 2005, managed by advertising firm JCDecaux] and that this has now led to greater use of bicycles in all France’s major cities. Later on we went into other fields, for example energy renovation projects for older buildings, and the whole range of issues involved in travelling around the Lyon area.

Image de personnes en vélo sur les quais lyonnais

Lyon residents can use Vélo'v bikes to ride on the riverside cycle track. ©City of Lyon official site

You obviously have clear goals for these two fields, which should help make Lyon a smart city. What initiatives are actually being taken?

One of the areas we’re working on is intelligent buildings. Our experimental site is the eco-district of La Confluence, where we’ve made great a great effort to construct low- energy-consuming buildings. For example, we’ve been working together with the Japanese New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), which fosters renewable energy technology, to renovate a group of disused industrial sites into mixed-use low-energy buildings. This is the Hikari project. Hikari means ‘light’ in Japanese.

This is currently one of the largest building complexes in France which actually generates electricity. Electric car-sharing systems can use the electricity to power up, and power is also generated for the 1930s local authority apartment buildings whose total refit is part of the project. Inside the buildings all residents are equipped with tablets, which inter alia are linked to their house appliances so as to track the energy they consume.

On the mobility front, we wanted to focus on developing apps to forecast traffic flows so as to help our citizen-users decide on the best solution for getting around the city.

During the day of discussions at the ‘Le Monde’ Smart Cities Innovation Prize-giving partnered by L’Atelier BNP Paribas, you talked about the importance to a city of intellectual resources. What intellectual resources are you using at the moment in your transformation process?

I believe that these days, cities are clearly at the root of the problem with CO2 emissions and our climate change challenges since their transportation systems and buildings emit most of the greenhouse gases. Fortunately, they also boast such a high density of intellectual resources that they have all the tools they need to find solutions to these problems.

Here in the city of Lyon, we’re trying to create an ecosystem close to what they have in Silicon Valley, in which university staff and students, researchers and entrepreneurs all interact with one another. We strongly believe in the need to bring startups together. It’s worth mentioning that Lyon has one of the most highly developed French Tech communities, with a huge number of 20 to 30-year-olds who found their own startups.

You also talked about your interest in biology and artificial intelligence. Are these areas which you see as representing the future of the Smart City?

Yes, of course! I believe in fostering innovation through experimentation and diversity of fields. That’s exactly what the Smart Cities Urban Innovation Grand Prize winner, ForCity, is doing. The company is an interesting example of how to switch from one domain to another in order to innovate in the city context.  That same startup was originally working on the complexity of the human system in the field of biology. And of course a city is also a complex system that generates its own interactions. They’ve been able to transpose their knowledge and they now focus on modelling cities. Their work has led them to predict cause and effect links arising from a given action at a given point in time. For example, when you build a group of apartment buildings in a certain area of the city, that will obviously have an impact on the public transportation system.

The City of Montpellier has opened up its data and offers its startups a Big Data challenge to encourage them to model the city of tomorrow. What is Lyon’s position as regards open data?

Well, we’ve also decided to gradually get together all the data collected by the city departments and make it available to startups so they can seek new solutions and create new services to make our city a nicer place for the residents to live in. The initiative takes in all the data from the Greater Lyon area – data relating to the construction of apartment buildings, data linked to public transportation, which also links up with [French National Railway Company] SNCF, plus data on water supply networks. In this way we’re trying to offer the widest possible field of action, so that as many people as possible can use the data to develop solutions to the problems encountered in our day-to-day lives.

Presentation detailing the opening up of Greater Lyon data, delivered at the Paris Open Source Summit 2013

When we look at your relationship with data, it seems that the new role of a Mayor is to become a sort of city CEO...

Yes, it’s a bit like that! I think that a true CEO is someone who is able to spot useful innovations straight away… someone who’ll go looking anywhere and everywhere, see what’s happening and then come up with a solution. But to do that, I think you really have to set yourself the goal of bringing people from different backgrounds together to work on a common objective.

Julie de Pimodan, one of the ten winners of MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35 France 2015 awards, tells us how a Mayor can become a city CEO

So what can a city do to encourage people to get together?

In the 20th century our societies were, and still are in the 21st, very cordoned off. People tend to live near others who are very similar to them, both well-off and less-well-off groups – what has been called the Self-Other mindset. And this is something that we see as particularly negative in the context of a smart city. People ought to be meeting each other, and for this to happen the city must encourage social mixing.

To get back to Lyon, where we had areas which were made up 80% of social housing, we wanted to bring in middle class people, demolish buildings and replace them with new ones. And on the other hand, in newly-built areas, for example the iconic La Confluence district, our approach has been to incorporate 25 to 30% social housing.

Image de la ville de Lyon

The second step is to ensure that all the suburbs – there are still a few of them – are linked conveniently to the city centre so that there’s no separation between centre and outskirts. In fact we’re re-designing all the districts so as to provide spaces where people can meet up. When we work on the construction of an apartment block we always think about the outlook the residents will have on to large squares, boulevards, grassy areas etc. In the same way as in the past people used to regard the pavement outside their house front as an extension of their house, I would like to go further than that and say that as far as we’re concerned, the public spaces at the foot of an apartment building are an extension of those apartments.

By Aurore Geraud
Senior Editor & Analyst