interview inriaValérie Issarny is Senior Research Scientist at Inria (French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control) working at the Paris Rocquencourt Research Center in the area of distributed software systems, from software architecture to new protocols and algorithms, especially for mobile distributed systems. She is acting as scientific manager for the program Inria@SiliconValley, in residence at UC Berkeley.

Alexey Pozdnukhov is an assistant professor in Civil Systems at UC Berkeley where he is launching a research center in smarter cities. He has a background in machine learning and computational science and data analysis.

They are currently carrying out joint research on smart cities, as part of an Inria – Berkeley collaboration. This partnership has just gone one step further during French President’s visit in San Francisco yesterday. Inria, CITRIS (Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, UC Berkeley) and Prime strike a partnership to accelerate the development of ambitious research and experimentation initiatives on issues relating to urban centers. Mrs. Genevieve Fioraso, French Minister for Higher Education and Research, witnessed the signature of this Memorandum of Understanding (more info here).

Valérie, can you present Inria@SiliconValley?

Valérie Issarny: Inria@SiliconValley is a program launched in 2011 in cooperation with Californian Universities, including CITRIS. Inria and CITRIS are close research partners, since a Memorandum of Understanding was signed five years ago. The program consists in structuring existing collaborations between Inria research teams and Californian universities, as well as launching new innovative projects. The aim is to put together complementary competences to address scientific challenges of the digital society. Inria is supporting the program in a number of resources, in particular a post-doc program and Associate teams. We also have yearly workshops bringing together all the researchers.

From your point of view, what are the main challenges for cities nowadays?

Alexey Pozdnukhov: There are two dimensions: the technological challenges and the social challenges. First, the costs of running city infrastructures are growing; existing infrastructure is getting older and needs more maintenance. Even more important, infrastructures become interconnected and interdependent. These interdependences can create at some point cascading failure effects: blackouts, traffic congestion and gridlocks with significant economic impact. These effects are not well enough studied, even though they are crucial especially when cities are facing an emergency. Besides, cities face social challenges due to the increasing population’s levels in cities. Most infrastructure systems in modern cities are now out of the equilibrium they have been designed for.

Valérie Issarny: More than 2/3 of the people will live in the city, which is challenging the city. We need to have solutions from technology to resources that scale to the population that will live in the cities. For instance, transportation is a challenge as a whole, which is to supply better mobility for people. According to a major car manufacturer, it will not be sustainable to have one or more than one car per person in the envisioned mega-cities. We have to develop other transportation solutions and the emerging car sharing solutions are an illustration of this.

How can cities respond to these challenges?

Alexey Pozdnukhov: The solutions are mainly in smarter use of infrastructure and resources available to cities. For transportation services, it means engaging and promoting public transportation, making it flexible and on demand. And this requires analyzing real time data directly provided by transportation system users. It is the same thing for energy infrastructure: you need data on demand for electricity in order to be able to optimize the energy consumption at every level from a building, to a block, to a whole city.

Valérie Issarny: Making cities “smarter” where ICT plays a central role is one of the major responses to these challenges, at least it is anticipated to be. Obviously, this includes being aware about the functioning of the cities through the monitoring of the infrastructure but also involving citizens.

How important is citizens’ involvement? Are there benefits for them?

Alexey Pozdnukhov: There is a chance for citizens to be directly involved in information flow toward the authorities and city services. If you make the city adaptive and responding in real time to the demand, then citizens will get better services, and ability to provide real time feedback. The citizens can thus close the feedback loop to the city.

Valérie Issarny:  Citizens are increasingly contributing to decision process or participative process, thanks to social networking and mobile applications. Their involvement is important as they represent a significant source of contribution to a better understanding of the city. At the same time, the city will address their issues, so they will benefit from it. Citizens are now using smartphones, which have sensors, providing an effective way to take the pulse of the city. Unlike deploying sensors everywhere, it is very cheap in terms of infrastructure. It is also crucial to understand how the city is going socially, to know whether people are happy or whether they have complains.

How can academic research bring together companies, startups, neighborhoods and cities’ officials?

Valérie Issarny: One role of academic research is to produce useful results and transfer these results. In the context of smart city, some technologies are already produced by companies and available to cities. A number of startups are also creative and contribute to feed the “smart city”, like in the IoT domain. But, there are still research challenges in smart city, so there is room for collaboration between research and companies or startups. As for city’s officials, any project in smart cities cannot be done without collaboration with cities. They provide significant requirements and can help for experimentation.

Alexey Pozdnukhov: With academic research, we can provide solutions for city officials that are cost efficient and complement those of big companies. Many critical problems can be solved by building information services on existing infrastructures and crowd-sensing and that can often be done with low investment through innovative start-ups. A city can benefit a lot from simply opening the data it collects.