A relatively recent concept in urban development, ‘smart cities’ are about more than digital technologies. Smart methods can improve resource use and reduce emissions through smarter transport networks, infrastructure and services to improve the quality of life for citizens today, while preparing for the challenges of tomorrow. Technopolis Group has extensive experience working with local authorities at the city and regional level to design and implement smart cities. One particular initiative, the PVD programme, is helping small and medium-sized cities become sustainable and inclusive with public-private partnerships.
In France, where there are over 36,000 municipalities, there is a growing need for regional and national cohesion in response to threats posed by climate change, among other challenges. Small towns need to be able to provide essential services to local communities, and thus integrate populations from different territory types (e.g. from rural areas, the outskirts of cities) particularly affected by aging and unemployment.
The PVD programme was set up by Caisse des Dépôts (CDC), the French public bank for public entities, in 2020. In 2023, the initiative was extended, as the ‘PVD+ programme’, to focus on green financing. True to its name – Petites villes de demain (roughly translated, ‘Small towns of tomorrow’) – the programme supports the revitalisation of towns with less than 20,000 inhabitants, in turn, exercising a central function in the surrounding rural areas.
Smart cities through an inclusive lens
As an urban planner, I am familiar with the different scales of intervention, the links and balance between the components of urban life and actors, particularly in the French institutional ecosystem, not to mention financing mechanisms for public urban projects (e.g. multi-year investments, procurement). With this background, the PVD+ programme’s mission is quite compelling: Providing technical assistance to smaller urban communities and, practically, assessing the maturity of their action plans and helping them realise their urban revitalisation projects.
Through the PVD+ programme, Technopolis Group is mandated by the CDC to provide project management assistance in deploying the system. We act as a ‘connector’ between different stakeholders, technical experts (e.g. engineers) and regional, national, European entities in the design and implementation of smart cities. We provide these different stakeholders with strategic support, support for the operational implementation of projects and expertise on financing (in particular, green financing).
PVD+: Green financing & public-private partnerships
Earlier this year, the CDC set up the PVD+ system, which is co-financed by European Commission’s InvestEU programme. PVD+ aims to go even further than the initial PVD programme by providing these cities with the technical and financial engineering necessary to mobilise green financing for development projects. With this focus, projects are selected based on their added value in terms of, specifically, energy production, energy efficiency of public buildings, green spaces and urban parks, soft mobility and green transportation systems and bioeconomy.
Smart cities are favourable ecosystems for cultivating public-private partnerships, given that there are incentives for government and corporate actors. The importance of the public-private dialogue is linked to budgetary constraints of local authorities, the relative scarcity of public funds and the need for technical know-how developed within the private sector, and for investors wanting to invest in smart, sustainable and inclusive city projects.
Ensuring social inclusion
The PVD+ mission demonstrates the extent to which all territories, but specifically small towns and cities can act as key players in tackling the impact of climate change. Yet, the private sector’s presence is less developed in the programme. In fact, due to the generally small size of their projects and perceived high risk for investors, small towns have often difficulty finding private financiers, instead turning to public banks or institutional funding bodies.
There are other significant challenges that may impede small towns and cities: isolation and impoverishment of an ageing population; distance from essential services and local facilities; closure of businesses; unsuitability of the housing stock; and degradation of historical heritage. Furthermore, these areas suffer from a lack of engineering know-how in terms of design, assembly and implementation of territorial projects and investment projects.
Take the example of Trilport, a small town of less than 5,000 inhabitants located in a rural area east of Paris. The city set up an action plan for its development in the PVD framework. For PVD+, Technopolis Group analysed which of these could be eligible for green funding. Together with Trilport, we chose the establishment of a pop-up store for local short food chains, allowing local producers to offer inhabitants a range of local and healthy products, diversifying at the same time the commercial offer in the city centre. The second project Trilport carried out with Technopolis’s support was the energy-focused rehabilitation of an old factory for the creation of a public space dedicated to social and digital activities. These examples show the potential for combining environmental, social and sometimes digital issues in a smart city.
In conclusion, a smart city approach will undoubtedly make it possible to increase social inclusion in terms of the employment, education and integration of vulnerable communities. So far, 20 small cities from all over France have signed up to be a part of the PVD+ programme. The ultimate goal is to help 450 small towns in the next four years, and Technopolis Group will be there to support the decision-making processes, push the analysis further, broaden the scope, respond to the sustainability challenges of tomorrow’s cities – in France and elsewhere.