In Paris, les grands projets have usually been buildings, from Louis XIV’s Invalides to Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe to Mitterand’s Louvre Pyramid and Grande Arche in La Defense. These edifices are all closely associated with French central government and its leader and exemplify the country’s tendency toward dirigisme, which can be summed up as the state telling its citizenry how, when, and where something important is going to play out. Most of these projects arouse strong emotions when they’re announced. Some, like I.M Pei’s Louvre Pyramid, come to be widely admired. Others, like the arch at La Defense, seem to have sturdy careers ahead of them as critical and popular laughingstocks. As a group, les grands projects have immensely influenced the character of the city that so many of us love.
I just came back from Paris, where I think I saw the city in the early stages of being changed by a very different sort of project. On July 15 Paris started the Vélib program, a networked bicycle rental service modeled on successful programs already in place in Lyon, Stockholm, Barcelona, and a few other cities. Vélib at present consists of about 10,600 bikes kept at 750 stations around the city (both of these numbers are expected to double by the end of this year), a self-service rental kiosk at each station, and an information system that ties the whole system together (this Newsday article describes the system nicely).
Anyone with a credit card can walk up to the kiosk, buy a daily, weekly, or annual membership, then immediately rent a bike. ‘Rent’ is not exactly the right word because if the bike is returned within a half hour, to any station, there’s no charge. Keeping the bike longer than that costs 1 Euro for the first additional half hour, then substantially more after that. This pricing is designed to encourage short rentals (for one-way trips, for example), and it appears to work. In Lyon, the average bike is used more than 7 times a day. If you don’t return the bike within 24 hours your credit card is charged the replacement cost.
I’ll vouch that there appear to be bikes and stations everywhere, and that people are taking advantage of them. My untrained eye and opportunistic observations indicated that both Parisians and tourists are using Vélib at all hours, and in many different neighborhoods. It appears poised to become a big success.
I bring up Vélib because it illustrates two points I try to stress when talking about IT’s impact. First, information technology lets you do new things. Vélib was simply not possible prior to the era of modern computing. Its pricing structure leads to the desired behaviors, and the pricing scheme depends on being able to track how long bikes were used no matter where they were picked up or dropped off. This immediately implies a citywide network that’s not expensive to run. Thanks to the Internet, we have one of these. The era of densely internetworked computing we’ve been in since the middle of the 1990s isn’t just the continuation or acceleration of previous trends in IT. It’s a departure from them, and a time of greatly expanded possibilities.
The second point I underscore is some of these possibilities, and the ones I find most intriguing at present, involve using IT to get out of the business of dirigisme. Vélib required a good bit of up front work to get the initial conditions right, but once it’s up and running it’s egalitarian, centerless (to its users), and actually quite difficult to direct over the short term — its managers couldn’t, for example, order Parisians to stop taking bikes to the eastern part of the city for an afternoon. It looks, in other words, a lot like many of the Enterprise 2.0 efforts I’ve been studying and writing about for a while, which is probably why I was so taken with it.
Innovators of all kinds, from government officials to entrepreneurs to enlightened managers, are increasingly going to look around at the computing resources available to them at very low prices and say, essentially, "Hey, wait a minute — we actually have all the ingredients we need to address this need / seize this opportunity / solve this problem. This will actually work!" And in many cases the solutions they put in place will not attempt to dictate how their constituencies will interact. Their solutions will instead provide an environment in which users can act and interact fluidly as circumstances demand. I imagine that this new, explicitly non-dirigiste style of interaction will over time alter the character of many institutions.