Thesis title: Eco-city and smart-city experiments in mobility, energy and infrastructure
Supervisor: David Pontille
The world will count 2,5 billion more urbanites in 2050. We are told that if the future of our cities lies in more growth (economic and demographic), it should be a better and responsible growth: but the technological and political means to achieve that are yet to be invented. Where is this happening? The subject of this Ph.D is urban innovation in smart- or eco-cities projects, with a focus on mobility and transportation. From Masdar to Songdo through Rio and Barcelona, various actors experiment with new ways of managing flows of people, things, energy and data. Urban mobility was at the core of the firsts eco-cities projects designed in the 1980s. More recently, digital technologies, along with knowledge in architecture, urban planning, engineering and finance, gave way to the concept of smart cities. But the lack of a clear definition makes the categories of smart city and eco-city difficult to substantiate. In order to make sense of these rapid transformations, the research will focus on the experimental devices they produce in order to test new objects (like electric or autonomous vehicles) and practices (like shared mobility or nudge mechanisms), analysing how various sites are presented as laboratories.
Inside those experimental settings, experimenters put various economic, ethical and legal options to trial, along with potential business models. It is also a place where new modes of intervention in public life emerge for private companies and where citizens’ and stakeholders’ participation is negotiated. City experiments are also important for the construction of social and democratic order: they are public demonstrations, sometimes contested, always political, and it is not always easy to differentiate between experimenters, witnesses and experimental subjects. Despite the enthusiasm they instigate, some of those projects are the object of controversies: about the privatisation of public space; about data collection and privacy; about economic and environmental inequalities or their actual ecological impact. By focusing on the design and management of experiments, we wish to avoid two equally false narratives: one describing smart cities as a democratic panacea producing universal technical solutions ; the other condemning smart and eco-cities as basic greenwashing.