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Paris tests 40 urban innovations directly on public

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PARIS -- The French capital becomes a living laboratory as prototypes pop up city-wide to innovate everyday life while giving the public a chance to respond.

Mobilier Urbain Intelligent : le panneau à... par mairiedeparis

PARIS – The French capital has become a living laboratory with 40 new inventive projects being implemented to improve daily life.  The goal is to envision a smarter city by outfitting public spaces with innovations to improve transportation, tourism, and communications, among other fields.  So far, about half of the forty prototypes are up and running, remaining in place for up to a year.

The project, entitled “Mobilier Urbain Intelligent,” or "Intelligent Urban Installations," coordinated between the Mayor’s Office and the Paris Region Lab, began in late 2010 by calling upon inventors and design agencies to submit proposals.  After extensive review of 48 projects, the city chose 40 ideas to implement, putting the prototypes in place during 2012.  This is the first time that the public will be able to experience these innovations firsthand with the possibility to evaluate and comment on each one online.

Krystel Lessard, information and communication director at City Hall said that the idea is to maximize the possibility for innovation, giving the city a broad idea of what future urban furnishings could look like.  “None of the projects were responses to a predefined project strategy.  The city of Paris is actually proposing to inventors to test their projects in situ, and to have the Parisians try them out,” she said. The mayor’s team and the Paris Region Lab will monitor each innovation, deciding later which ones to keep and which ones to improve.

The projects, designed by independent agencies and larger companies like JC Decaux (responsible for the Vélib bike-sharing system), can be found in neighborhoods across Paris.  Certain prototypes addressing transportation needs include an automatic electric car charger that will allow designers to observe how such a station would function under real-life conditions.  Also, cyclists tired of stolen or damaged bikes can test private bike boxes created by Emotion System.  The “Vélobox” allows for storage of up to 10 bikes in individual compartments that expand using solar energy and lit at night by LED lights.

Various prototypes aimed at enhancing communication are also on display.  JC Decaux has also proposed public smartphones located on two public bathrooms loaded with applications to help users navigate Paris, from getting a taxi to discovering museum opening hours.  The company has also installed a giant HD screen that can be used to transmit local news, updates, or traffic advisories to the public.

Similarly, a fixed tactile screen has been set up by the Bastille Opéra to help locals and visitors find information in a multitude of languages.  While boiling down to little more than a public iPad, the innovations are novel in a city where information remains inaccessible.

More pointed projects are being installed to address very specific needs, especially for tourists.  For example, visitors wandering the famed cemeteries of Paris now have electronic assistance.  The company Tracetel has developed a touch-screen kiosk that will guide visitors of the Montparnasse Cemetery towards certain tombs, also allowing users to download interactive maps on their smartphones.

Other projects can be found in all corners of the city.  The first public memory-foam chair has been installed in a park in the 19th arrondisement, a change from the traditional wooden benches and metal chairs offered currently in public gardens.  Mobile gardens and a mushroom cultivator fed by coffee grounds are also on display, hoping to provide locally-grown produce in a sustainable fashion in a city known for its coffee consumption.

Maria Laura Méndez-Martén, born in Costa Rica, is one of the selected inventors who’s project, called Nautreville, aims to enhance the way locals experience information both citywide and in individual neighborhoods.  Her device consists of a transparent screen that rotates 360 degrees allowing users to mix news information with geolocation to show what’s going on in the the part of town visible in the window.  After collaborating with Paris Design Lab in 2010, her project was selected in 2011 and implemented on March 15th by the Square du Temple in Paris’s 3rd arrondissement.

On one level, she explained, the digital panels will allow users to get a general overview of what’s going on in Paris, but on a more intimate level users can find more detailed information about the surrounding district, changing how neighborhoods define themselves.  “Cities are collective, we need to think about devices that can provide collective information,” Méndez-Martén said.

The Nautreville screen, on display through April before moving to an indoor venue, contains elements that Méndez-Martén hopes to build upon with or without the city’s help.  She said when submitting her project to City Hall for consideration in 2011, she already had a working prototype ready to exhibit whereas many other inventors only had ideas, making her project an attractive choice.  Still there is no certainty as to which projects will ultimately be selected to develop further, especially with a small window of time for designers to address technical needs. “I don’t think 6 months is enough to test everything,” she said.

The city and the Paris Region Lab will monitor the public’s response and the performance of these innovations over the course of the year, with inventors like Méndez-Martén hoping that the exposure to the public will help garner support for their projects.  While continuing to improve the prototype and push the envelope of innovation, she is keeping her options open.  “I’d really like to find a partnership,” she said, “and I would be really happy if there is the possibility to develop this further.”

Photo: Nautreville.com

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Bryan Pirolli

Correspondent (Paris)

Bryan Pirolli has worked for Conde Nast and Travel+Leisure and has written for EuroCheapo.com and Concierge.com. He holds a degree from New York University and is currently studying at the Sorbonne. He is based in Paris, France. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure