Smart city or susbtainable city?

Updated 10/31/2019


Digital technologies have drastically altered our habits and are now transforming the way our cities function, with promises of a multimodal and integrated mobility, smart housing, innovative urban planning and sustainable energy and waste management. So, what do we really know about it?

New services showing off a “Smart City” label appear every day. But what exactly does this term, which appeared in 2005, refer to? Is this ultraconnected ideal really desirable, more liveable, more sustainable?

“In the last few years, we have been conducting a number of studies and establishing partnerships on various themes in order to distinguish between what is just a fad and what is a real step towards sustainable living” explains Amandine Crambes, Urban Engineer at ADEME. “The aim is to form our own opinions on the matter in order to better inform our consultancy work with local authorities”.

Digital technology, powerful but not self-sufficient

So, what is the verdict of these studies? The results of a survey carried out amongst 4,000 people in France by the Observatory for Emerging Practices within Cities has revealed that the smart city model is actually rejected by a majority of people in France, who would prefer a city closer to nature. 
More particularly, data management raises a number of issues. Indeed, less than one in three people is willing to share their personal data to contribute to the efficient running of the smart city. Nevertheless, digital technology remains a powerful tool to tackle environmental challenges in French territories. For ADEME, digital technology can be useful for the ecological transition thanks to its disruptive potential, its ability to put pressure on decision-makers and transform dominant models. 
“To build the sustainable city of the future, technology is a mean to an end. It is essential, but inefficient if it’s not serving the needs of citizens and if they don’t appropriate it”, according to Amandine Crambes. “It is thus essential that we use the existing needs and practices of people living in those cities as a starting point. The advantages offered by digital technology and grids will allow us to eventually build soberer, more pleasant and thus more sustainable cities, as they will be more in tune with the aspirations of their citizens.”

Projects and tools

In order to strengthen the capacities of France’s territories and help local authorities master digital technology tools that will help the energy, ecological and societal transition along, ADEME has set up a number of projects centred around three main themes: data, governance and inclusion. Regarding 
the issue of data, ADEME is for example partnering up with Datacités, a collaborative experiment to support local authorities in the development 
of strategies for using and sharing data. With the spread of digital technologies, traditional models of governance need to be redesigned. ADEME has already shared a number of ideas on urban economic models. As for the Audacities study, it has generated a number of ideas in order to better govern innovation, better innovate within governance and also better govern with the citizens’ input. Finally, the modes of inclusion of the inhabitants of the cities of tomorrow remains a central issue. ADEME has recently launched a case study aimed at 
providing local authorities with a set of good practices in order to tackle exclusion. All these subjects still need to be think through. The results of Datacités 2 (late 2019) and of ADEME’s inclusion case study (by 2020) should give us some answers.