Public discontent

“We didn’t see it coming, and we didn’t know how to handle it,” says Florence Forzy-Raffard, Bordeaux’ councillor for European Affairs. The people of Bordeaux and many other French cities were up in arms about the installation of ‘smart meters’ in their homes. “There was a huge rejection by the population against those smart meters, which was absolutely unbelievable. People felt it was like big brother who was entering into their homes and monitoring when they were going to bed and when they were having a shower and when they were making love to their husbands, it was just unbelievable the rejection that came out of it.”

Big benefits

This was the last thing that the city had expected when its electric company began to install smart meters. There is a huge public emphasis on environmental consciousness and on consumer choice. It seemed logical that smart meters would be popular.

Smart meters are electricity boxes that can show users the details of their energy consumption – when their consumption is high or low, which appliances are using a lot of power and so on. With these, residents would be better able to understand and control their use of power. “It means you can manage your consumption of electricity more closely, it’s energy efficient and more environmentally friendly. It really ticks all the boxes.”

Social media spiral

Facebook groups, bands of concerned citizens, hundreds of letters and petitions to politicians, and court cases brought the installations to a screeching halt in Bordeaux, and across much of France.

Forzy-Raffard believes that social media was key to this sudden manifestation of mass unrest: “Social media is a wonderful amplifier of discontentment. And this is something you have to factor in, because, maybe there was only a handful of people who were really against it initially, and they were very clever and used social media to create a huge buzz. I have been a councillor for 20 years and I feel the evolution. It’s the social media era, things are going faster and faster.”

A climate of fear

People were afraid that the smart meter might emit electromagnetic waves that could be harmful to their health, that the new machines could pose a fire risk, and that the data which the machines generated about residents was too invasive and could be mishandled.

They feared everything

Christophe Colinet, Bordeaux smart city project manager, remembers: “They couldn’t understand what was behind the box. They feared everything. They were totally against it. They created many different groups, associations, to say stop to the roll-out of this new meter. Many mayors, under citizen pressure, wrote to the energy company to refuse these meters.”

What went wrong?

Despite the uproar, Forzy-Raffard stands by the decision that the local council made, “It was something that was right. I mean it’s a good project, and if we had to do it again, we would do it again. But obviously something failed along the road.”

Now, despite some continued protests, health-related rulings against the meters, and some areas still holding out at an administrative level, the rollout of the meters has largely managed to go ahead. So what was the real root of the problem, according to Colinet? “It was because citizens were not associated with the decision process.”

Forzy-Raffard agrees, “we had all the best intentions in the world. But that’s not enough. Citizens need to check things, things that we think they want – energy, progress, environmentally friendly, saving money. So that’s something we need to anticipate: better communication, better citizen engagement.”

The ear of the mayor

In fact, Bordeaux already has a huge infrastructure of citizen engagement measures in place. “We use a range of options for engaging residents,” says Forzy-Raffard. “One is the very classic approach of what we call suburb committees. Each part of the city has its committee and subcommittees where citizens are encouraged to come and talk about every topic.”

Each of these citizen groups has a chance at the ear of the mayor: “The mayor himself comes at least once a year and goes into each suburb and meets the citizens.” The mayor can then listen personally to their concerns, and open a dialogue with them about possible solutions.

Bordeaux 2050

Besides this regular event, Bordeaux also launched a huge survey to get a better overall feel for the concerns and priorities of its people. “We are trying to get our citizens engaged in the shape and form of our city in 2050.” Forzy-Raffard explains. “It’s a massive online survey. We’ve also got the Bordeaux 2050 truck which is going around the city.”

In fact, Bordeaux2050 or ‘#BM2050’ is as much a movement as it is a survey. The truck which travels around the city is a space for dialogue and debate, exercises in schools are engaging children in thinking about the future, and hackathons are bringing together the city’s brilliant minds to come up with new ways to tackle future issues. Now a dedicated space, ‘La Maison #BM2050’, has been set up as a forum in which residents of different ages and backgrounds can work together with the city to create new narratives of possibility.

Face to face

Forzy-Raffard is adamant that when working on citizen engagement, you cannot rely solely on the online world. “What’s important is that we can’t base everything on technology and online stuff.” It can sometimes be easy to forget that many people are not comfortable with doing things on a computer. This is not just true in Bordeaux; an EU study revealed that 44% of people all over Europe between 16-74 do not have basic digital skills.  “We still have a number of our citizens who are digitally illiterate.”

But capacity to use a computer is not the only barrier to online participation, Forzy-Raffard goes on: “There are those who don’t have access to internet, or who don’t read and write French, or have a disability, or all sorts of reasons that they need to have a face to face conversation. So, internet and online will never fully replace face to face contact; on the contrary.”

Taking this into account, Bordeaux is careful to balance its online and offline life: “We post things online, but we always need to compliment it with phone numbers for real people, not chat-bots, who will actually pick up the phone and answer the preoccupation of Mr X or Y who can’t access his garage because we are digging the roads in front of his door.”

Based on the experience with smart meters, Forzy-Raffard recommends that any new measure should be tested with a subset of the population before it is rolled out across the whole city, and that “can create a positive buzz. Otherwise, explain, explain, explain, write letters, and don’t assume that just because it’s good people will think it’s good.”

Give me silver

Bordeaux certainly hasn’t abandoned the goal of being a high-tech smart city, and is taking part in EU-funded projects like Sharing Cities to ensure that it can remain in the front row of new citizen-centred developments. “We are very proactive and ready to embrace things,” Colinet says.

However, he also emphasises the importance of moving steadily into the future, rather than vaulting ahead: “We’re very happy to have something that has been tested elsewhere, like in Sharing Cities. We’re a relatively small city, 750,000 inhabitants, and we’re not looking to win the gold medal, we’re happy to be silver or bronze. We don’t want to be the first by any means to have new technology.”

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer