Life in the Uber City

LONDON – Mais oui! As every French fifth-grade student knows, the Internet was invented in Paris. It was called Minitel, short for Médium interactif par numérisation d’information téléphonique, a network of almost nine million terminals that allowed people and organizations to connect to each other and exchange information in real time. Minitel boomed during the 1980s and 1990s, as it nurtured a variety of online apps that anticipated the global dot-com frenzy. It then fell into slow decline and was finally decommissioned after the “real” Internet rose to global dominance.

Both Minitel and the Internet were predicated on the creation of digital information networks. Their implementation strategies, however, differed enormously. Minitel was a top-down system; a major deployment effort launched by the French postal service and the national telecommunication operator. It functioned well, but its potential growth and innovation was necessarily limited by its rigid architecture and proprietary protocols.

The Internet, by contrast, evolved in a bottom-up way, managing to escape the telecommunication giants’ initial appeals for regulation. Ultimately, it became the chaotic but revolutionary world-changer that we know today (“a gift from God,” as Pope Francis recently put it).

Today, another technological revolution is looming. Pervasive digital networks are entering physical space, giving rise to the “Internet of Everything” – the networked lifeblood of the “smart city.” And, once again, a broad spectrum of implementation models is emerging in different parts of the world.