“Smart cities need a collaborative approach”: French Mobility leader

Smart cities and smart mobility are transforming the urban space, triggering the need to rethink public services.

New technologies-driven services coupled with rapidly evolving societal demand are enabling smart cities and smart mobility, fundamentally changing the urban space and triggering the need to rethink public services. In the lead-up to the Movin’On Summit on sustainable mobility, we talk to

Self-driving car test area sign

Thomas Bonhoure about his experience at the heart of one of France’s most ambitious regional projects and as a leader of the French Mobility initiative to facilitate innovation in mobility.

Hello Thomas, and thanks for taking the time to share your experience and views with us. First, could you tell us what your responsibilities are and what you are working on?

I am in charge of the organisation of urban space in “Versailles Grand Parc”. This is a vast area close to Paris that is home to over 300,000 inhabitants and many large corporations. As such, we contribute to the highly ambitious project of Paris-Saclay, the largest innovation cluster in France. The zone includes world-famous schools like the Ecole Polytechnique, HEC Paris business school and Paris-Sud University in Orsay, as well as a large number of private research and development centres. In particular, we are lucky to have a number of mobility-focused centres in our vicinity, including Air Liquide, PSA and Renault.

My work includes urban planning and transportation and aims to build a smart and sustainable territory. This echoes inhabitants’ growing expectations for new services and healthy surroundings. Our ability to reconcile those sometime conflicting aspirations relies on innovation.

Technology is significantly disrupting the area you work in. How are you dealing with that?

New economic models for cities driven by the digital revolution and energy transition generate three main challenges for the public sector.  

First, how to preserve general interest in models where public authorities are sometime bypassed. Indeed, in transportation we have to reconcile inhabitants who are users of transport services with those who are impacted by nuisances created by these services. A good example currently is that of city streets flooded with dockless vehicles.

Second, how to ensure that we get the best out of our public assets – infrastructure, public data, public space … etc. The trust people put in us can also be considered as an asset in models where we can play the role of trusted third party.

Hydrogen station

And third, how to adapt public procurement tools and our mindset to fully benefit from the private sector’s greater ability to come up with innovative solutions to address users’ pain points.

Our conviction is that we need to develop greater skills for public-private partnership. In our region we are lucky to have some of the most advanced research centres around the topic of mobility. This has allowed us to foster innovation by setting up incubators and launching “proof of concept” demonstrations in close partnership with global technology leaders, for example for the first line of hydrogen-fuelled buses in France launched with Air Liquide, or autonomous cars.

Also, as part of the French Mobility initiative, we are members of a national network of experts on the subject of mobility. We are able to share experiences and best practices within a close-knit network and to benefit from the experience of this larger network of actors working on the same issues.

How are public authorities coping with the flow of innovation and new services from private-sector players?
To be honest, we are still on the learning curve, but the momentum is indeed there. The public sector is learning quickly, but is also experiencing a rapid change in the ecosystem that requires it to think deeply and to adapt.

We can also observe from our discussions with the private sector that leading the change is no easier for them. A lot remains to be done.

In addition, thinking that smart cities will be built without the public sector would probably be a dangerous bet for entrepreneurs and investors when designing a new business model or assessing the related risk. The tricky part is that the way public sector will impact a model can take many forms and is very specific from one model to another.

We are definitely in the same boat and our common interest is to improve user experience. In this context, proof-of-concept processes offer interesting learning experiences for all parties, before long-term commitments are made. 

Self-driving bus in Versailles
What are the main challenges to ensure that smart cities and smart mobility can evolve from a collection of small-scale experiments into a bigger, more comprehensive reality for all citizens?
In my opinion, the key issue here is that the emergence of smart cities is breaking silos everywhere.

The main driver for this transversal approach is the fact that the beneficiaries of an innovation or new service may be different from the investors in or contributors to this innovation. So we need to reinvent collaborative models to bring all parties together around common goals.

In the French utilities and services space for example, we have been used to working with groups that are global leaders in their own fields (transportation, buildings, energy…). But smart cities require a collaborative approach where everyone works together and contributes their specific expertise to a larger-scale project to benefit citizens, the environment and society.

This is a clear paradigm change. There is a strong need for collaborative behaviour which is not always easy to adopt for companies used to acting as sector leaders. And the next steps will likely require some players to act as coordinators to ensure that everyone plays their role.

Here again the value created, fairly shared and properly delivered is our common interest!