Interview with Fabien Girardin

Fabien Girardin

“A Smart City handles a huge amount of data, but how to relate them to each other is still to be determined”

“We work to turn these non-related data into value. Doubt is the starting point, but as a means to state whether something is good or bad”

Fabien Girardin -a Swiss engineer and researcher who currently lives in Barcelona- co-founded Near Future Laboratory, a company devoted to research on future scenarios in our lives.

He recently created a system of self-writing books called Memento; he is the Managing Director of Winning Formula, a sports newpapers from the future, and he produces TBD Catalogue, a catalogue about the near future.

He is said to “intertwine qualitative remarks and quantitative data in his work, in order to obtain information. Afterwards, he uses the knowledge obtained with engineering techniques to create prototypes and evaluate concepts and solutions related to data”. He started his career path in Spain, where he obtained his Ph.D. in Computer Sciences and Digital Communications by the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. His Ph.D. was focused on digital fingerprints. “My Ph.D. research -he told us- is about human-machine interactions. I wanted to focus on digital fingerprints: both those that we create consciously when we upload pictures to Flickr or Instagram and those we do not even know about but are essential to make some city services work: mobile networks, shared bikes, the underground…

ASC.- Which projects did you take part in along this phase?

FG.- I worked in the MIT (Boston) for a year, and there I joined a group that worked on the possibilities of using data to improve life in the city. The most important project I took part in was related to using mobile network data to understand, among other aspects, which is the most attractive zone in a city, where most people choose to stay and how these data evolve over a year.

ASC.- How did you use your research on digital fingerprints in your professional activity?

FG.- I set up a company to keep working on that, and we are now closer and more alert than before to the needs that a bank, a city, a mayor, a fair, a museum… may have. I will show you an example: I worked for the Louvre Museum to try to generate new indicators on what is called “decongestion”: data are used to establish when a given number of visitors in the same place worsens the quality of the visit. We measure this interconnection at specific time sets. New data types, information and indicators that we generated for the Louvre Museum were later on applied to similar subjects at different scales, such as cities or a bank, to name a few.


TBD catalog


ASC.- How can these projects be applied to a smart city?

FG.- A Smart City handles huge amounts of data, but we still do not know how to relate them to each other. We try to transform such data into value. Instead of focusing on written reports, we focus on making things foreseeable, “prototyping”, setting up services people may touch. In order to determine what the real needs for the future are, we use fiction and suggest tangible things, such as a catalogue of future objects or a sports newspaper that contains news from 2018.

ASC.- Could such a project be transferred to a Smart City?

FG.- Skepticism may arise sometimes, in the smart city area, as to how useful projects will actually turn out to be. Perhaps this is due to the fact that a smart city is imagined as a perfect city, free from garbage collection problems, free from anything that does not work exactly as it should. Fiction makes it possible to set up something a bit different and devise the future from today’s reality onwards. In other words, it makes it possible to try to determine where we will be in the future by engaging as many citizens as possible in the dialogue.

ASC.- Are you and your team trying to find a more realistic way to figure out the future of cities?

FG.- One of our projects is called “TBD Catalogue”, a catalogue of products and services for the future, somewhat like those handed out in planes and featuring duty-free objects. Products and services help us determine what the problems in the future will be, and it is extremely relevant to maintain a cross-cutting approach to keep it as realistic as possible. This is why we do not limit ourselves to the computer science world, but we also work with people in different areas: marketing, advertising, law, design, philology, architecture… When thinking about the future, it is essential to establish a dialogue among several different views.

ASC.- Is it possible that the Smart City concept remains somewhat stuck in the technological view? Should it be reconsidered?

FG.- Some people actually do extraordinary things in the technology area! Nevertheless, we should take into account who will benefit from this smart things: who wins and who loses in the world they are drawing up for us. It is important to understand both sides of the issue and their implications. Tangible things are needed to really understand where we are going, and we are doing our best to provide that.

ASC.- Could we say this is a way to introduce doubt?

FG.- Yes, absolutely. We come from the academic world, which feeds on doubt. Doubt is its driving force. In everything we do, doubt stands as the starting point, but to determine whether something is right or wrong; we try to be neutral and find a future view to carry on research. Sometimes we obtain results that clash with the general world view. We care the most about the current state of the world, we analyze how it is now or how it was in the past. A city is something extraordinary, it is the most sustainable way for people to live together. Nevertheless, in cities (as in any other aspect of life) problems must be solved, and we offer key elements for their solution. Doubt should not be a hindrance that prevents us from doing things.

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