Digital technology and Big Data changing the way cities are run

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.

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 includeAirbnb 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.

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.

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