Quality of cities, the magazine of the RATP group that shows THE CITY DIFFERENTLY.

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Meeting with Daniel Kaplan

Strongly involved in the development of the Internet in France and around the world since the 1990s, Daniel Kaplan sat on the French National Digital Council between 2013 and 2017. A lecturer at Sciences Po Paris and Télécom Paris Tech, he is also a member of Inria’s foresight committee. He co-founded the Next-Generation Internet Foundation (Fing) then, in 2019, The Plurality University Network.

For you, is the digital city synonymous with the smart city?

The digital experience has been developing in a massive way in our cities over a long time. As we have seen with the Covid-19 crisis, digital technology has entered very deeply into our personal and professional practices as well as those of public players. As early as the 2000s, studies on mobility that I carried out with RATP showed how much cell phone use had changed the sociability of young people, who now moved around in “shoals of fish”.

This change is not the result of smart city-type planning. If we ask people in the street which digital players have changed their experience of the city, they spontaneously bring up Uber, e-commerce site Le Bon Coin, or Pokemon Go, not smart city players such as energy companies, communication networks or all those who “sell” this concept.

Are you rather critical of smart cities?

In any case, I consider that it is not an urban problem but rather a problem with a technology provider that can fuel the fantasy of a territory that is finally manageable, optimizable, as a system that can be understood as a whole. The concept of the smart city feeds the idea that the public interest can be reduced to a set of functions in a region. The problem with this vision of pure management, as seen with the first Korean smart cities, is that it forgets that the organic city is a place of meetings, of life, of initiatives.

Paris, this hyper-dense city, is a place in which we cross paths and rub shoulders. The smart city, without integrating this concept, is boring! The lockdown showed us how much we miss real-life meeting places, the mobility, the density.


"The lockdown showed us how much we miss real-life meeting places, the mobility, the density"

As a former member of the National Digital Council, you have also warned about the dark side of the digital city.

I think that transparency is necessary. Who makes the trade-offs? Who decides on the investment choices? Do these mechanisms produce what is expected of them? Do they disseminate knowledge? Power? The possibility of better “feeling” your city? Do they increase our capacity to be citizens? To take initiatives? In this vein, I am interested in experiments with self-data, in which everyone can use their own data by cross-referencing it with public data. I am convinced that digital systems should be subject to joint decision-making.

We can see this clearly with the discussions around Covid-19 tracking apps. The data for the common good that we are promised can have a high democratic cost in terms of privacy. We must be aware that what we agree to install today will never go away.

You co-founded The Plurality University Network, which focuses on the power of imagination. Are you inventing other kinds of future for cities by giving a platform to artists and citizens?

Yes, this project seeks to rebuild our relationship with the future in a collective, participatory way. City residents want to write the future of their city, reinventing urban territories so that they can better live in them.

For example, our Fabrique des mobilités program is collecting hundreds of “fragments” of the future (extracts from films, comics, books) offered by participants, with the aim of using this material from fiction, utopias, the arts and design to initiate discussion, renew vision and lead to concrete projects (urban planning, greening, mobility, etc.). The idea is to say new things with new words in order to encourage innovation.

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