Planning the Smart City in Paris

By Adam Tanaka • September 21, 2015

Hydroponic islands made out of recycled plastic that remediate urban waterways. A pneumatic trash system integrated into the sewage network. Underwater hydroelectric turbines that harness the river’s current to power mass transit. Adaptive road networks that shift in size, usage and direction based on traffic patterns.

These are just a few of the smart city projects developed by Harvard undergraduates in Paris this year. A partnership between Harvard Summer School and the Paris-based Center for Interdisciplinary Research, this project-based program employed an innovative, interdisciplinary approach to engage undergraduate students in urban issues, fusing scientific concepts with detailed and actionable city planning proposals. Through tag-team lectures that paired urban and biological concepts, students learned how natural selection drives evolution at both the individual and societal scale, while simultaneously exploring parallels with the adaptive, resilient and participatory potential of the smart city. Teams comprised of American and Parisian students then built on this foundation to develop proposals to improve quality of life in Paris, on issues ranging from transportation to education and covering project phases from concept and ideation to implementation and assessment (see the full range of student proposals on the program website here).

The summer school benefited from the support of City Hall throughout, and consultation with city officials and community members was integral to the students’ work. “The goal of the current administration is to develop our urban policy with a larger number of actors, whether businesses, university students, researchers or regular citizens,” says Fabienne Giboudeaux, project manager for Paris’ Smart City initiative. “So the Harvard program dovetailed perfectly with our desire to ‘co-create’ the city with a wider range of people. We don’t want to leave the planning and development of the city just to city officials and bureaucrats anymore.”

“Making Paris ‘smart’ is a key issue for the mayoral administration.”

Indeed, one of the most notable aspects of the program was that the majority of students had a scientific background, with training in biology, ecology and computer science. And of the three course faculty, only one had formal training as an urban planner. But rather than being skeptical of the students’ contributions to urban policy, city officials embraced this new disciplinary perspective. “What I liked about the program was that the students weren’t your typical urban planning and design concentrators,” says Giboudeaux. “They weren’t trained in architecture, civil engineering and other technical disciplines. The students in the program had a broader scientific training, in life sciences. This brought an innovative approach to urban questions. On the level of the smart city, we are trying to develop an integrated approach that links different kinds of networks, uses and users of the city. I found the parallelism with biology incredibly stimulating and intriguing.”

Since the start of her term in April 2014, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has placed considerable emphasis on the use of new technologies to facilitate broader public involvement in city decision-making. “Making Paris ‘smart’ is a key issue for the mayoral administration,” explains Renaud Paque, director of Development at the Atelier Parisien d’Urbanisme. “Now, for the first time, there’s a directly appointed Smart City team within City Hall that is integrated into the governance of Paris on a variety of issues. I think it’s significant that the Deputy Mayor for Smart and Sustainable Cities is also the Deputy Mayor for Urban Planning. So new technology isn’t only a question of economic development, but also a key component of urban planning and civic life.”

Less than six months into her mayoralty, Hidalgo launched the largest participatory budgeting effort in history, devoting €426 million ($588 million), or 5% of the city budget, to implement projects chosen by a popular vote between 2015 and 2020. The poll gave all Parisian residents, regardless of nationality or age, the opportunity to choose between a variety of projects, ranging from city-funded incubator spaces for start-ups to pop-up swimming pools to the transformation of under-utilized public land on the urban periphery into cultural spaces for art and music. The new civic engagement platform, launched this year, further consolidates the role of new technologies in the planning process. The website is dominated by the slogan, “Madame la Maire, j’ai une ideé” (“Madame Mayor, I have an idea”) and has four sections: “Let’s co-create Paris,” “Your ideas,” “Participatory projects underway” and “Where to participate.”

Building on this groundswell of interest in the participatory potential of new technologies for urban life, students developed a range of proposals and conveyed their ideas using a number of non-traditional methods, including film, animation, music and collage — as well as a more conventional planning document with maps, charts, renderings and community outreach. At the end of the summer, students presented their work at City Hall, sharing the fruits of their labor with city officials and residents.

Parisian planners say they were struck by the breadth and innovation on display in student projects. “The most interesting aspect of the student proposals was that they had a short time frame and many of them weren’t actually that familiar with Paris,” says Paque. “So there was a fresh energy to the work that tackled critical questions about urban life in a very succinct manner. Often city planners are so embedded in the daily life of the city that they don’t back out and look at the big picture. It’s difficult to have that kind of distance and objectivity when you’re constantly working in the same place.”

City officials noted that students’ unusual methodologies carried lessons for planning professionals, particularly in terms of public outreach. “This extended collaborative contact with young students helped us to rethink the way we might run public meetings and present our ongoing projects,” says Giboudeaux. “I was struck by the students’ dynamism and thought they presented their work in a very engaging way. New technologies help with this, and young people are of course much more competent with new technologies than we are. I found the multimedia component of the program and the films in particular to be excellent. We should be inspired by this playful and even somewhat naïve approach when thinking about our presentation methods.”

Students around Les Halles Display

Students also developed new methodologies for planning practice, not just planning process. One of the program’s first assignments was to analyze the neighborhood of Les Halles, an area in central Paris currently undergoing redevelopment. Students were tasked with developing an innovative quantitative methodology to measure the efficacy of the area, analyzing variables such as pedestrian circulation, public toilets and access to trash (learn more about this assignment on the course website here).

“I was really struck by the students’ approach to Les Halles,” says Paque. “I spent a lot of time working on the planning and redevelopment of the area and I really enjoyed the way that one of the student teams decided to assess the efficacy of the area by looking at the distribution of noise. This approach engaged with issues like noise pollution, urban perception and public space and made me think about the neighborhood in a new way. I liked that the students were developing new analytical methods for looking at the city.”

As the program gears up for its second installment next summer, faculty are already in discussion with city officials on how to improve knowledge sharing and exchange between students, planners and residents. While the course emphasized the link between biological principles and “smart” technologies, its underlying concerns with local democracy, social inclusion and environmental sustainability are as old as the discipline of planning itself. On the first day of class, students learned about the work of the legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs and memorized her mantra that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Top photo credit istock© FredCollin

About the Author

Adam Tanaka

Adam Tanaka is a PhD student in urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). His research focuses on housing policy and development in the contemporary United States, drawing from the fields of political science, law, urban planning and real estate to develop methods for understanding and improving upon urban housing provision.