Notes from Paris digital city conference

Some notes from the urban computing symposium I attended in Paris last week. The whole thing was about what the organizers call "Villes 2.0" (i.e. City 2.0) based on the assumption that the transformation the Web have seen (from its first use to a second generation much more participative) is an interesting model to observe what is happening nowadays in urban environment. They have a whole research transfer/workshop program about this topic and this event was focused on "new urban perspectives". Isabelle Mari (JCDecaux) and Bruno Marzloff (Groupe Chronos) The discussion was about the bike renting system put in place by JCDecaux (see the one in Paris) for example. To them, the biggest surprises were:

  1. The service was a success unlike what the marketing studies they've done before had revealed. People seemed to be not interested before the introduction of the service but their offer revealed a latent demand from city dwellers
  2. The service was a success very quickly and with an incredible richness of appropriation, as attested by pictures on Flickr, lots of curious practices and tools created by people (mash-ups).
  3. They expected people to get bike pass (because it's more convenient) but people acted as "reccuring occasional users" by paying only when they needed a bike. As if people wanted to minimize the constraints and employ the service to optimize their liberty of use.

They then presented the reasons why an outdoor advertising company such as JCDecaux becomes a "mobility company". One of the reason is that people are used to a fluidity of services and information; they than have similar expectations for urban services. The problem is that city councils or other public bodies don't have resources/time/expertise to do that. Therefore some public/private hybridization with new actors are appearing. The problem is then to have a continuity of services between all these actors. The advantage of a company such as JCDecaux is that they're already working with networks (of physical objects, i.e. billboards, people, subcontractors, etc.). The network organization is a fundamental aspect of mobility.

The last thing they discuss was the similarity between the web and the city (in this web2.0/city analogy): people on the web buy "display", a need to have an embodiment and it's the same in the city. She also made an analogy with digital music which is now a commodity and it augmented the value of concerts. In the city, there will be new commoditized services that will augmented the value of city activities.

Jean-Louis Fréchin Jean-Louis talked right after me, in the session about the invisibility of the digital city. More specifically, his presentation was about urban signs and identity (see his slides in french here).

The identity of a city is built through: monuments and symbols (Eiffel Tower), history (traces of the past), signs that are sometimes discreet (manhole covers), signs (street plates), road signs, infrastructures (like Guimard's entrance in Paris subway), companies signs. This often lead to a "ville-spectacle" (spectacle-city). On the other hand, the signs and the identity of a city are participative. graffitis, space invaders, political announces.

Through various examples, he then detailed the issues at stake concerning signs for digital services: should we create new signs? new objects? old objects (can we reinvent the orientation table?)? or should we combine signs to other infrastructures? What should be the level of precision? Do we need the information to be legible? What about the regulation? who will control these signs? Can it be participative?

Yo Kaminagai (RATP) Yo is a design director at the Paris transport utility company RATP. Personally, I always enjoy his talks as they're a mix of down-to-earth and design description. The sort of thing I get from his talks are elements such as "we need 20 square meters per metro station to put infrastructures for GSM covering of the whole subway system and we never have enough room in corridors built in 1910. So there is less room for people, less for billboards and our revenues drop". As a matter of fact, he started by discussing how the immaterial, what some call "the virtual" is material and that people, users, are impacted by that. Thus, space is not an adjustment variable but a parameter.

A big part of his talk was about the design guidelines they set to create metro stations (easy to use, reliable, enriching, regulating, safe) and the importance to link (or not to link) the underground city and the city above. And he highlighted how the disorder of spatial environment often reflect the communication problems between people who are taking care of it.

Part of their problem is also that they need to think at different scales. For instance, they will soon renew their metro trains. What happens is that they buy something that will last 60 years (and will only be renovated once). So planning is VERY important: taking new needs into account, flexibility (how to design billboard 30 years before), how to combine safety, comfort and huge numbers of users (3 lines on 14 are overcrowded today, in 10 years, it will be 10 on 14!).

In that context, they consider building new (digital) services (for orientation, supporting conversations or meetings...) but given that the subway is already crowded it can be perceived as an aggression (too much information!) by users. This is why they think about "doubling" the physical environment with digital representations (hence their interest in platform such as Second Life).