Smarter Cities

French Tech Imagines New Cities With 3D Simulations

To both improve cities and conquer markets, companies are turning to urban simulators with the interactive power and graphics of video games.

Artelia team taking a look at Santiago's future
Artelia team taking a look at Santiago's future
Laetitia Van Eeckhout and Martine Valo

PARIS â€" One click and you land in 2030, strolling along the green streets of Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan since 1998, discovering the new areas located along the River Ishim River, stepping into the cable car that criss-crosses the city … Another click and you’re in Santiago, where the Panamerica highway no longer draws a monstrous 100-meter-wide scar in the center of the Chilean capital of 7 million inhabitants.

Urbanism can reinvent itself almost infinitely thanks to new, sophisticated digital models. With an interactive fluidity worthy of video games, these simulators are designed to help us imagine a more sustainable and peaceful future, but also as a tool for promoting cities that are making smart use of technology and innovation.

Last month, Eiffage and its partners Egis and Engie introduced their 3D urban demonstrator, called Astainable. In June, the engineering group Artelia, with Veolia and Architecture Studio, handed over their own urban planning simulator to Michelle Bachelet during the Chilean president's visit to Paris. These two achievements, which both answered a call for bids from the government in 2013, are destined to be international showcases of French urbanism, under the umbrella brand Vivapolis.

Aerial scouting

The French finance ministry put 2 million euros on the table to fund the development of these digital products, while Astana and Santiago were chosen as test cases for their relatively poor state of urban development.

Astana, which spreads out over 720 square kilometers and where the population has increased by 250% in 14 years, shows all the symptoms of rapid urbanization: a rising energy footprint (electricity and heat are produced using coal exclusively), air pollution, traffic congestion, obsolete waste management, of which 97% end up a garbage dumps. Meanwhile, temperatures vary between 40 °C in summer and -40 °C in winter. As for the Chilean capital, a good part of the Transamerican road traffic cuts right through its historical center.

"Astainable" simulations â€" Photo: Eiffage

In both cases, the 3D simulators rely on a sharp preliminary diagnosis. “The city officials in Santiago played along completely, and opened all their files to us,” says Charline Froitier, chief engineer of the Artelia project.

Among the results: With the data provided through aerial scouting, users need only indicate a building on the digital model of Santiago to know its dimensions and number of residents, allowing for a “city scan” that makes it possible to plan future strategies in a more precise manner.

Keys and bricks

At Artelia, engineers listed 11 “keys” to a sustainable city, which include, among others, mobility, social equity, security, the presence of nature and the “identity” of the city. The approach at Eiffage is to present scenarios at the scale of the urban area for each one of the city’s “bricks”: transport, energy, sustainable construction, water, waste, air â€" addressed in the form of animated infographics.

By exploring a city's future in 3D, the visitor can search a multitude of integrated solutions, immediately followed by suggestions from French companies ready to provide the necessary services. This goes from an extreme-cold-resistant electric car ​(Zoe, offered by Renault) to a system that values combustible domestic waste patented by the PENA group, or filtering gardens that absorb the pollution manufactured by Phytorestore, a specialist of purification through plants.

“In every ‘brick’ of the sustainable city, France has come up with real gems of all sizes. About 60% of the solutions come from companies with less than 100 employees,” says Valérie David, the head of sustainable development at Eiffage. “This work gathered 104 companies. We’ve stepped out of working according to separate trades and specialties, and developed a global approach towards the city, integrating all its dimensions.”

So will these demonstrators establish themselves as indispensable tools? “They make it possible to look into the future in an appealing way,” says Jean-François Doulet, a university lecturer at the Paris institute of urbanism. This collaborative work, where companies get together to complete a project successfully, is still largely at an experimental stage, and is still met with strong inertia from current players.

“The sustainable city must not become the new technology-driven establishment that the great â€" authoritarian â€" programs for new cities were yesterday," warns Doulet. "It requires the participation and appropriation of citizens.”

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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