Since Antiquity, cities have been major political centres, as evidenced by the fact that the classical Greek word for city, polis, is the root of our word for such activity. And now that cities are undergoing profound digital transformation, with the development of – inter alia – CivicTech tools, while at the same time traditional governance models are increasingly being challenged and people are raising all kinds of questions in this domain, the time may have come to rethink the entire notion of citizen participation and representation. Most western democratic states are today undergoing what many commentators call a ‘crisis of representation’. We have seen a steady drop in voter turnout at all the various types of elections, a pervasive loss of trust in the political system and growing feeling that the policies and political actions being undertaken are ineffective. These are not by any means new phenomena and such remarks have even become rather commonplace in modern political discourse. However, the digital revolution seems to have accentuated the trend, for better or for worse. 

A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle

Ernest Renan

It’s undoubtedly for the worse in the gradual disintegration of the communal sense of belonging and the weakening of the traditional collective consciousness in favour of a rampant individualism. After all, as French historian and philosopher Ernest Renan asked: what is a nation? His answer – “a nation is a soul, a spiritual principle” – gives us the idea of a feeling of intimacy, almost a religious sentiment of belonging to a family, with a shared history, a shared cultural heritage, a shared past and a common destiny. This is the myth on which are founded our social and political links. However, given the redrawing of affiliations and social relationships through borderless networks, there is a growing ambivalence towards national political consciousness. There are no frontiers in cyberspace: users can find all kinds of content, access to alternative, different cultures. Consequently, we are now seeing a hybridisation of our culture, of our feeling of belonging which is tending to ‘uberise’ the traditional Nation with all its values, borders and political ideologies. A sort of iron curtain has descended on the western nations, which are now torn between the resurgence of the most extreme forms of nationalism on the one hand and movements that strongly contest the current nation state model on the other. This is a highly sensitive issue and it is no surprise that the question of how people feel about the nation and its role pervades political discourse nowadays. After all, every public authority organ relies on the concept of the Nation, on people’s sense of belonging. However, this organisational model is in crisis and needs reworking.

An holacratic smart city?

Nevertheless, at every time of great crisis, in every revolution, there lies the hope of change, of creating a better world. The growing individualism in our social organisations is a consequence of citizens taking sovereignty – their freedom of choice and of conscience – back into their own hands. And this means that it’s up to all stakeholders, both public and private, to work together to build a new model of governance capable of combining our individual strengths with collective intelligence. And from this point of view, the political transformation underway is comparable with what has been happening in the world of business. The vocabulary and the methods are now very similar, even though the basic aims of the two worlds differ. The rise of the computer and digital tools is bringing about a change in relationships, from a top-down to a more horizontal approach, in the organisation of society as well as inside companies. Governance is becoming less of a one-way street, more flexible, more decentralised. Rather like the Holacracy model, which seeks to create a freer company structure, the centralised nation-state ideal is gradually giving way to smaller, more local, structures. At the same time, the role and status of the chosen leaders, like the managers in a freer, more Holacratic company, are being rethought. Under this new approach, towns and cities, especially as they develop into ‘smart’ cities, are likely to find themselves entrusted with greater powers.

Coordinating spaces, redefining spheres

What is basically happening is that the public and private spheres are coalescing, or perhaps becoming hybrid. This is true of towns and cities and it is also, by a sort of mirror-effect, happening in cyberspace. And the basic challenge for the Smart City is to harmonise these two spaces. Under the effects of the digital revolution, the urban space is being replaced by a virtual space, aka cyberspace. This term was first coined by the American-Canadian writer William Gibson in his science fiction work Neuromancer. Published in the 1980s, the novel looks forward, not without a certain apprehension, to the digitised society of a 21st century in which technology has pervaded the entire world and transformed it into a cold-hearted monster, with a quasi-totalitarian authority that even implants devices into the human organism so as to keep the population under tight control. In this society, Internet-based tools have been used to replace human political organisation with a second level of online space organised into data networks. 

Meanwhile modern-day geographer and spatial environment expert Boris Beaude argues: “The specific properties of the Internet have undermined the position of the established territorial players. Their control of territory gave them a privileged position and they are not very happy about the emergence of another kind of space, in which they have only a marginal say.” In fact, notwithstanding all the science fiction myths, we need to think of cyberspace as a space in its own right, with its own geography and a real geopolitical dimension. And within that, the online network society, together with its tools and ways of doing things, should be seen as a ‘public space 2.0’, with its diasporas, its social links and its own modes of governance.


Once we conceive of cyberspace as a ‘second public space’, then by definition we are politicising this space and posing the question of how it should be governed. The notion of the ‘public sphere’ set out by Jürgen Habermas in his 1962 work ‘The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society’ helps us to understand the changes taking place in the public sphere in the digital era and their repercussions on our towns. The German philosopher defines this sphere as a public space in which information and ideas are disseminated, enabling the formation of public opinion and political objectives. Habermas calls the representation of this political will ‘publicity’. This sphere has no independent existence but depends on the specific configurations of the interactions. 

Where Habermas’ thinking relates to the concept of the Smart City today is that it sees the origin of this notional space in the architecture of the houses of the bourgeoisie. Unlike the mansions built for the nobility, based on the layout of grand palaces in which a series of open rooms followed each other in succession, the typical middle-class house is made of two main types of room: bedrooms (chambers) and sitting rooms (salons). While chambers are of course private, intimate, the sitting room is part of the public sphere, a place where people meet, talk and discuss. Personal ideas conceived in private chambers are aired and debated in the salon. At the dawn of the French Revolution, this idea of a separation between the public and private spheres was extended to the entire nation-state, helping to create the political sphere that we know today. 

'can cities reignite democracy?' conference at LE MONDE smart cities awards

L'Atelier BNP Paribas

Social Contract 2.0 based on data?

If indeed cyberspace is gradually taking on the features of a second public space, where content and ideas are exchanged and debates conducted, we need to assess the theoretical and practical consequences of this development. The state, at least in its nation state form, comprises three constituent dimensions: territory, population and sovereignty. The mode of government is determined by the way these three elements fit together. However, as we have seen, in this digital age the three components have undergone some changes. The territory has now bifurcated into the physical offline public space and the online public space and sovereignty is becoming more and more dependent on control of data. Only the notion of population, subject to the rules of citizenship, appears not to have undergone any appreciable shift. The data question goes to the very heart of the sovereignty issue because the user data that is shared on the networks and used to underpin digital services, not least Smart City services, is central to users’ digital identity – it is what defines, identifies and characterises them in cyberspace. Basically, user data is private and personal, by nature – in theory at least – unsuitable for use in the public sphere. 

However, nowadays data is also central to the digital transformation that is enabling cities to become ‘smart’. This necessity is complicating the relationship between the private and public spheres and is touching on an area that the German-American philosopher Hanna Arendt described as totalitarianism. These days, digital data provides a crucial link with the citizen’s environment. S/he interacts with the online environment via this data. And where the user has the power to decide whether or not to provide data to the city’s connected infrastructure s/he is effectively taking back the power to act. Instead of being a passive recipient, s/he becomes an engaged citizen with a say in what happens with the space, the infrastructure, the city itself, a voice in its government. However, the sine qua non condition for this is that the data must actually belong to the user.

Beware of the 'data police'!

It is at this point that we need to establish how sovereignty is to be organised within the territory – in our case in point, within the Smart City. Speaking at the Smart Cities event hosted by leading French newspaper Le Monde in partnership with l’Atelier BNP Paribas, journalist and consultant Francis Pisani argued that we need to abide by the precautionary principle when it comes to the use of data in the digital transformation of our towns and cities. This principle would inter alia require that the individual’s right to decide whether or not to share their data be protected and would ensure ethical dealing by all parties concerned, given that the circulation of data in and about the city involves a wide range of players. These include, apart from the citizen-users, who provide their data in exchange for city services: technology inventors and designers, who develop the tools and so to some extent determine what can and will be done; and the public authorities, who set the objectives and the framework and lay down rules for the protection of these new information circuits. Hence the need for an effective partnership between the public and private spheres. Francis Pisani sees a real danger that we will end up with a totalitarian state underpinned by ‘data police’ who would keep tabs on citizens’ every word or gesture. There is also the danger of creating entrenched economic monopolies, businesses that seize upon user data so as to be able to sell their services more effectively. Last but not least, there is the risk that the ‘connected’ citizen will develop an entirely selfish ‘me’-attitude that will eventually harm the collective interest. Thierry Pech, Director-General of the think tank Terra Nova, reminded the Smart Cities event audience: “A city isn’t just a set of procedures, it’s a society.” This being so, we will need to draw up a new social contract that takes into account the key role played by digital data.

Forging a new model of democracy

The new social contract will need to enshrine rules for the exercise of sovereignty through data. The big question here is whether citizens have the ability to choose for themselves the uses to which their data can be put – in other words, if they will be able to manage their data all by themselves or should hand over this task to a specialist operator. And this train of thought leads us to pose once again the eternal question of how to organise democratic governance in towns and cities. Should we be moving towards a system of direct participation in decision-making or ought we to try and breathe new life into representative democracy? And this fundamental reflection is closely bound up with the way CivicTech – whose job it is to come up with innovations to enable and support the new approaches – should be going. Cynthia Fleury, a Professor at the Graduate School of Government of the American University of Paris, underlined that CivicTech developments depend on the basic democratic question: “Should citizens step forward themselves or have their views represented by intermediaries?” This questions concerns both the ends and the means. How can we re-shape democracy through and for modern habits? How can the citizen best be included in the decision-making processes and government of the city? 

Professor Fleury pointed out that in spite of the great importance and huge potential of major cities, the representative system is now in such crisis that nowadays we almost always see a low turnout at municipal elections. This paradox underlines the challenges facing the Smart City. Some commentators argue that including residents in city planning and decision-making will whet their appetites for political involvement in general: if people are encouraged to take an active part in shaping the city where they live, if they feel useful, see themselves as agents of change, then they are more likely to become involved in the wider field of politics. Karine Dognin-Sauzin, Vice-President of the Lyon Municipal Authority, told the conference audience that the job of representatives like herself is “not to run the city any more but to organise the running of the city” – i.e. that municipal authorities no longer have a monopoly on making the city’s public policies but need to collaborate with new types of players, including not only public-private business consortia but also, and especially, the residents themselves.

Appel à projets Le Monde Smart city EN
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Stephane Vincent, who heads up a French public policy research organisation called The 27th Region (so named because its aim is to support new policymaking across France’s 26 administrative regions) argues that the way forward is to “prototype public policies in conjunction with citizens.” His use of the term ‘prototyping’, commonly used in the world of digital innovation, illustrates his idea of using the city as a sort of giant collaborative fab lab where residents, companies and elected representatives work to create practical policies. For so many reasons, the city government of today should no longer be taking a one-way, top-down approach but ought to be geared up to draw on everyone’s ideas and initiatives. 

The new paradigms of the city can help to overcome the current malaise of democracy. The local sphere is the level most likely to be able to re-kindle people’s interest in public affairs by introducing participatory mechanisms designed to build collective local governance. Francis Pisani would like to see civil society organised on the charity model, where individual actions succeed in changing people’s lives for the better. And data can facilitate these new forms of participation and collaboration, provided it is applied in a sensible manner. Let us hope then that by optimising the potential of the Smart City we can re-empower citizens and encourage them to re-engage with democracy. After all, though we do sometimes tend to forget it, democracy is supposed to be ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’.

By Théo Roux