This podcast was initiated by Anna Chashchyna to discuss sustainable development, urban planning, smart cities, and much more. It was a great way for Estelle Forget to reflect as well, on her path, and why she loves so much what she does.
Anna Chashchyna: I’d like to start with your introduction – from a lawyer’s practice, through finance to sustainable cities. How was your transition? What influenced you to focus specifically on sustainable urban development?
Estelle Forget: I was born in 1974. I was interested in law when I was young. I was also curious about the economy during this time. My choice was a pragmatic one, based on the need for having a secure job.
After 11 years in the banking and finance sector, I wanted to bring more meaning into my life, and I decided to go back to university to do what I love to do – learn.
Because I have an outgoing personality and care about others, a friend advised me to study sustainable development. At that time, I didn’t know anything about sustainable development. However, I began my studies with a Master’s in Sustainable Development at the Paris Dauphine University.
What I learned during this Master’s changed my life. I wanted to change the world and contribute at my level to build a better world. During a study trip in the Netherlands, I discovered urban planning and I realized that I had found my calling. The reason is clear, if sustainable development impacts everything – by everything I mean everything in the city (people, food, water, transportation, energy, economy, social community, etc.) then we need to find a balance to help people.
If a city is built with a bad design, people cannot feel well and the city cannot be prosperous, because our environment has a direct impact on our behavior and mindset.
In fact, I found it very useful to have a background in law and finance to address the issues of sustainability especially for cities and territories where governance and economy are as important as political issues.
Anna Chashchyna: What makes a smart city? How big a role do technology, AI, data collection play in it?
Estelle Forget: My point of view is that for a city to be smart, it must have a good design.
This is probably a basic thought, but it is important to remember. What I mean by good design is intelligent urban planning. Intelligent urban planning integrates long-term vision. What will my country or my city be in 2050, for example. It could be a smart nation as is the case with Singapore.
The philosopher Seneca said: “There’s no favourable wind for one who doesn’t know where he’s going.”
Whatever the country or city, the preservation of nature and biodiversity is essential and urban planning should define a fair place for humans as part of biodiversity; the earth is not a home for humans only. That’s why this vision should be translated into a masterplan that includes infrastructures and services provided keeping in mind a population ratio of 3,000 people.
A city must meet the principal need of the people, as defined by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: physiological needs, safety needs, social needs, esteem needs, self-actualization needs. Only after you have a sound masterplan can you consider using new technologies. However, technology is only an add-on; technology cannot heal cities that have been badly designed.
To give you a simple example, urban design it like medicine for the city and technology it’s like a vitamin. And, as you know, technology can play a big role in managing the city, promoting news services, and offering the possibility of having more efficient public services. I believe in progress, and in this regard, new technologies are definitely enablers of progress, if and only if we use it for good.
Technology can help us to be more virtuous or dangerous depending on what world we collectively want. I don’t want to live in a dystopian world as described in George Orwell’s 1984. And, I am not a fan of monetizing data. This is a real business for companies now, but for me, it’s bad business and is not sustainable. We need to preserve personal data as a global public good.
Anna Chashchyna: Digital is, on one side, making the city smart. From the social point of view, what makes a city safe?
Estelle Forget: Before talking about technology I believe first in education and prevention. If we anticipate through education and prevention, we limit the risk of insecurity. Also, the law to protect people must be respected by everyone and applied to everyone.
Technology can help educate and improve awareness, and also anticipate risk. For example, a French company has developed a dashboard that has been implemented in several cities to help mayors manage their city in real-time. In real-time, you can change the duration of red lights based on traffic, you can monitor utilities by making recommendations to reduce, for example, water and energy consumption. Also, you can look after elderly people and ensure they are still alive by checking their use of utilities.
Anna Chashchyna: I watched your video where you talk about student group exchanges with France/Morocco (very curious to know the results of it). If you take two similar cities with access to water, for example, Nice and Casablanca, you see how dramatically the citizen ownership of space differs: the long pedestrian promenade in Nice and no access to water in Casablanca unless you drive outside of the city. In your experience, what really stops the city councils and other bodies taking urban planning decisions from using and monetizing even resources such as access to water?
Estelle Forget: In Casablanca, the project of the old slaughterhouse is to become a cultural fabric to promote Moroccan arts and artists.
Nothing prevents city councils or other bodies from making good urban planning decisions, except the lack of vision, competencies, or the technical capacity to integrate global issues.
Anna Chashchyna: Which city today would you call a sustainable smart city and why? Maybe a couple of examples?
Estelle Forget: Frankly, today, there is no model for a sustainable city and I don’t know one smart city in particular in the world. However, there are many interesting initiatives. Singapore is an innovative laboratory of the smart city and it works very well. These good practices should inspire many countries.
But, we have to be humble : when you plan a city, you need to think not just like a doctor, but also as a prophet because you can’t immediately know the results of the decisions you make and their impact in the future.
Most cities are not sustainable today and this is a real problem because 68% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050.
Anna Chashchyna: In your view, will the trend of leaving the rural areas for cities reverse in spite of the coronavirus crisis? More and more people are thinking about moving to private houses outside of the city to avoid densification – you think this trend will take over?
Estelle Forget: In 1950, the worldwide population was around 2,5 billion. Today we are 7,7 billion and we will be almost 10 billion in 2050. This data could give you a reasonable idea of the pressure on the environment if you consider that we need to eat and drink water to live, and if you consider that the earth takes time to regenerate.
We must preserve the lands and biodiversity; it is not an option. In fact, to reduce the pressure on the environment then, density is not an option and this is really crucial to promote the concept of intelligent urban planning. This is a rational concept. Technology cannot resolve the fact that we need to keep enough land to feed 10 billion people.