Collaborate to innovate

Datacity Paris 2018: Building together the city of tomorrow

Gares & Connexions, AREP, Setec, the City of Paris and Suez together with the startup Batiphoenix have embarked on an experiment, the upcycling of construction materials from the Paris-Lyon station-Rue de Bercy construction site.

But why have all those people, partly business competitors, come together? Why has a small startup of just three been called upon to help huge firms employing hundreds of engineers? And, above all, how do we get them all to collaborate? That's the beautiful subtlety of Datacity.

The founding idea behind Datacity has been to identify problems that large corporations haven't solved yet. You know the kind of problems that we should get in grips with if we had the time or the funding, or even those that we are almost unaware of. So, it all starts with a problem. Not with a brilliant idea, nor with technological prowess, and even less with a "weak signal of potentially disruptive changes". No, nothing of the kind. It's all about spotting a very real present-day problem.

Taking the first critical step: introspection

What is the very problem I am really concerned with? The question is more complex than it appears at first glance. Anyone can speak  their piece on  urban issues but admitting one's own shortcomings is harder, though so much more constructive. We dedicated two intense half days with Gares & Connexions and NUMA to formulating a clear problem statement. But mind you, identifying a real problem isn't easy! If we solve it, what will be the added value brought by the solution? Do any solutions exist? And what business model choices are there?

And is if this wasn't hard enough as challenges go, you then have to spot problems that are common among the various big corporations. The first part of the collaborative process is a little bit puzzling because you have to be both  honestly selfish and open to concessions. Does that make any sense?

Well, let me clarify this. If you are not both selfish and honest, you cannot solve a real problem that will bring value and therefore you won't be able to develop any long term business model. If you are not ready to make concessions, you will not be able to identify a challenge that is common among all your partners and therefore the commercial aspects of the innovation might be reduced to nothing. Once again NUMA had been the driving force and they really took it out of us: problem sharing, votes, rewording, defining the experimentation, the key performance indicators, what would be the benefit for the startup and for each one of the partners, etc. And then they sat us down with a pitch coach, a startup coach, a design coach. Just because it says SNCF on the can doesn't mean you can just present the problem to the heaving mass of startups and hope for the best.  You have to sell the problem adequately if you want startups to spend time and money to solve it.

Etienne Burdet, Smart City Officer at AREP

After two really intense days, we agreed along with Suez, Setec, and the City of Paris that reusing construction and demolition waste is a key priority. We have realized that the main issue yet to address is that architects and engineers have difficulties in convincing clients to conclude a separate dismantling contract because they don't take this stage into account from the outset. In order to get there, we need to secure dismantling contracts at an early stage and know who can, for example,  recover the glass or the lighting fixtures, when and at what cost, and how all the logistics will be handled. We have already demonstrated our capacity to sort and reuse materials or to create new opportunities in the upcycling sector but we need to systematize the process in order to be able to work at a larger scale that goes beyond the simple "I'll go dumpster diving hoping to luck into some recyclable item".  Helped by a coach, we clarified our project even further and realized that the communication channels were crucial.  There are several platforms allowing to buy and sell construction waste,  most of them declining. Craftspeople mainly communicate by phone or text messages, grasp opportunities when they come their way, and occasionally use the internet. They are used to planning ahead  for months only while large construction projects request scheduling that may extend over years. How can  all these communication habits be reconciled? Those able to crack the challenge will open their business to a sea of opportunities.

And that's where startups come into play. Who among those working for AREP, Gares & Connexions, Suez or Setec would legitimately believe that it is possible to make money by liaising between architects, craftspeople and materials recovery professionals? No one, of course, because for large corporations like ours this is a niche market which we are not familiar with. Startups, on the other hand, may find it interesting to recover large quantities of construction materials if they are able to sell them out afterwards . And that's exactly what Batiphoenix does.

To list some of the benefits for the participants:To list some of the benefits for the participants:

  • Batiphoenix has access to large construction sites;
  • AREP and Gares & Connexions can put forward their ethical and sustainable approach to construction site management, which is important for obtaining both financing from authorities and building certification;
  • Suez can complete its solution and further develop the market for reused materials in collaboration with architects and contracting authorities;
  • Setec completes its materials and processes databases;
  • The City of Paris can boast ethical and sustainable construction sites.


Win-win situation on all fronts

Will this work? We don't know it yet and that's why we are experimenting with the idea. The Rue de Bercy construction site seems ideal for that purpose because we are at an early stage of the project, which means that we can still change things. Moreover, a BIM model of the existing building is available, which makes waste assessment easier. Batiphoenix will have to work hand in hand with our architects and engineers in order to convince the contracting authority that a meticulously executed dismantling contract can be concluded. The process will be intense, failure is expected, but we'll surely learn a lot.

I'm sure that you are all wondering now when flying robots connected to the blockchain come into play. Datacity reminded me of at least one thing -innovation is rarely about genius futuristic ideas. As you may have noticed, there has been no brainstorming sessions nor fierce debate during the process.  Innovation is about getting out in the field to spot problems, about identifying those people that innovation can really help and exploring new business models and values.  Above all, innovation is about testing out all the proposed hypotheses extensively before confirming them, which means that we need to embrace the idea of potential failure. That's the only way to learn. And through our participation to Datacity, we have already learnt a lot about collaboration with startups.

From 8th March to 3rd May we'll find out a lot more about waste reuse!