Futur en Seine @ le 104, Paris

Hello all, I am back in my hometown, getting to know the place again. I don't know if any of you ever feel this, but the first couple of days of being back, I feel like I am in a movie, people don't look real, places look like movie sets. I've just gotten over that feeling now and am well and truly back in the swing of things.

Paris is impressing me (weather aside), I am finding a bunch of little innovations left, right and centre that I perhaps never would have noticed had I lived here uninterrupted for the past 10 years. The most noticeable is 'auto lib'', the electric vehicle equivalent to velib' which the world, with the exception of Parisians, regard as a quite successful bike sharing program. I've used it a few times and if you're a member, it is a pretty smooth process. You can tell JC Decaux are struggling to keep them all in working order though. My friend Martina from Boston was using one yesterday with a couple of her friends and between broken gears and floating toilet paper caught in the wheel, you never quite know what you're gonna get with Velib'.

Back on auto lib' though, it's pretty amazing as a system. You sign up, very much like Go Get in Sydney, except that the cars are electric therefore silent and non polluting! The only downside I can see is that you don't hear the cars when you're crossing the street without looking, which happens to me a lot.

The design of the stations is quite unique, with semi-spherical pods popping out in the street every-so-often. The site boasts 1740 cars and over 1100 stations throughout the city by the end of June 2012. You pay a flat fee per year and then a 'consumption' fee of 5 euros per 30 mins. I would imagine that that takes care of insurance and all that jazz. I have yet to use it but I like the idea and the commitment by the Ville de Paris to something this radical. Parisians are not huge car users overall, most people use the reliable metro system but if you are to use a car, you might as well go green...

Speaking of urban innovations in Paris, I (briefly) attended Futur en Seine yesterday at le 104 in Paris's north. Le 104 is a newly created 'creative cluster' that has been converted from its former life as a municipal morgue into a cultural centre. It started out quite artsy fartsy as the stage for Philippe Starck's UK TV show called 'Design for Life' but has now realigned its mission statement to be more integrated into the local community's life. It's now the stage for a number of artistic projects including performances, a restaurant, a gallery and temporary event and workspace. For Futur en Seine, le 104 even hosted a Fab Lab. It's quite extraordinary how le the 104 hosts an event like Futur en Seine as well as a hip hop rehearsal and a Tai Chi class, all at the same time!

Futur en Seine is a festival of digital ideas for the city. It gathered architects, industrial designers, programmers and innovators of all sorts in a two day extravaganza to show wares and share ideas. It was a bit hit and miss, a lot of ideas were still in prototype stages, which is a good thing. Large companies such as SNCF and EDF were there too to showcase their innovations, but their section of the expo was largely under patronised. A couple of projects resonated with me, others I found a bit gadgety but I suppose these kind of events are about testing out the appetite, viability and commercialisation potential of a lot of ideas.

I went to Futur en Seine with Emile Hooge, of Nova7 in Lyon, a local consulting crew that helps clients navigate service design from a user-led perspective. They work on transport and urban projects amongst other things. It was great to finally meet Emile, we'd been interacting for months on Twitter and finally got together to discuss the informatics and service design landscape both in Paris and Sydney. Interestingly, Emile had a lot of experience working with local government here in France and was sharing some interesting thoughts on the merits of prototype over strategy which is certainly a thought I will be bringing back to my practice. He argues that prototyping a service or a product, using industrial and service design methodologies can often offer the 'proof of concept' needed to engage in a full-blown digital strategy. It's tangible, solves a real problem and often demonstrates the cross department collaboration needed to bring good projects to fruition without automatically entailing a full-blown organisational restructure. Start small and nimble is the message I got from our chat.

Amongst the piles of gadgets and toys that we found all over the place, there were a few projects that stood out for me, wearing my urbanist hat. First off was a project that built off the success of 'Ville sans limite' (city without limit) a collaborative urban design tool and consultation process that has been used in several French cities. The idea is to use augmented reality as a platform for collaborative design of specific urban sites across the city. I didn't think it was that successful as a design tool, but I was interested in its potential as an educational tool. The users can adjust their designs according to 5 sets of criteria that include greenery, density, diversity and 'knowledge' (whatever that means) as they hold the iPad up to view the site in question. Unfortunately you can't pan and view a whole street, you're restricted to viewing the one intersection or site but the idea is that people can view in real time the impact of certain values and decisions on the urban environment. The guy at the stand was telling me that this is used by Nantes and Paris as a consultation tool to engage local communities on the future of certain sites. I found the engagement with the delivery of urban outcomes a bit superficial, having more trees does not in itself constitute a good outcome, but like I said, I think this kind of tool can be used to educate the public on possible futures and engage in a debate about local values and priorities. A good conversation starter.

A second iteration of this project was called 'Evolving Cities', a simulation environment that again, looked at a specific site, and allowed users to express their preference for the building in question by adjusting various parameters as in the previous project. The project they were currently working on was a school in the outer ring of Paris and the team was trialling this platform as a way to engage with a user's perspective and gain ideas and input from the students themselves. The project focused largely on architectural considerations, mostly workspaces, trying to gauge how open plan they should be. Again, I thought the parameters were limiting and only dealt with the surface of the issues at stake when designing education spaces. I think there is potential to use this more as an adaptive tool, to test designs and layouts rather than projecting possibilities that are determined by various combinations of five parameters. This is the criticism I often level at parametric urbanism in general: I find it a simplistic and form-driven method of thinking about the city, which is, in reality, less about form and buildings and more about what people do in them.

We then met up with the guys behind a great project called Museomix, a kind of hack day for museums, where teams of designers, programmers and curators get together and look at new ways of presenting, sharing and relating to collections using digital technologies. This is run by Nod_A, a Paris-based innovation collective, that has been looking for museums to run a second iteration of Museomix. If anyone out there is interested, especially in Sydney, get in touch. They're keen as mustard to trial something internationally. The first round was held at the Musee d'Art Decoratifs in Paris and some of the ideas that came out of the hack day have been pursued internally as a result of the event. Now that's the kind of collaboration that is worthwhile...

Out of the process came 'kaleidomix' a social geolocated platform that allows museum goers to connect whilst in the museum. It follows a lot of the principles Dan Hill had suggested when working with various clients in Australia, the idea is to get a real time view of what people connect with and why. The prototype is still clunky but the end goal is to get a large dashboard type installation is certain galleries in the museums so that people can sign in and interact with other visitors and with the collection in a socially augmented way. The dashboard displays comments and votes for favourite pieces in the gallery and allows you to see who else is interested in the same things you are. Once you leave the gallery, your data is no longer visible to the public and any personal information is deleted. The advantage of a project like this, although still in prototype stage, is that it also allows curators to understand what resonates with visitors and why and develop new ways of helping visitors interact with the collection. In my opinion, this back of house, analytical mode is somehow more interesting, as it could yield quite large datasets and allow for exhibition designers and curators to understand, in real time and across a statistically significant population, the impact of their design. Again, it moves design away from a predictive tool into an adaptive tool that is strengthened by behavioural data.

It's important to remember, these are prototypes but what's interesting to me is that Nod_A uses pretty broad ranging tools to engage with end users and curators in this context. They bring everything, from laser cutters and printers, computers, toolboxes and so on, opening up the range of possibilities and enabling participants to prototype rapidly, learn from mistakes and refine the concept.

Great morning at Futur en Seine and good to see innovation in action in Paris!