The third place as a catalyst for the smart city

Photo by Darya Tryfanava on Unsplash

An initial American concept, the third-place (or tiers-lieu in French) becomes an essential link to the smart city transition projects in France. It acts as an igniter and catalyst to developing smart villages projects. It becomes the prior first step for IoT deployment because of connectivity it requires. The third-place gives a soul and a stepping stone to the small smart cities.

The Third-place is an urban sociological concept developed by Ray Oldenburg, professor at the Pensacola University (FL), explained in the book The Great Good Place published in 1989, describing the importance to have dedicated spaces where sociological links can be maintained or recreated outside of workplaces and homes. In the author’s mind, it was mainly a space to reinforce the civic and associative engagements of people living nearby; a place where people can meet up and talk freely.

Thirty years and few technological revolutions later, the idea evolved to integrate the new very concrete concepts like Makers, FabLab, Start-ups, Co-working spaces. It is currently becoming a crucial element for any village or small town that wants to run a smart city transition. It attracts individuals who are going to actually make the smart city ‘live and breathe’, not just install technical sensors to monitor water and electricity consumption. Basically it is about bringing the soul to any small smart city.

In large cities, third places of course exist, but each one serves one and only purpose: a library, a co-working space, a FabLab, a music center, or even a coffee shop where political debates take place.

In the small towns, deploying several spaces, with each one dedicated to one single purpose, doesn’t make much sense — both geographically and financially. However, merging all the one-purpose spaces into one may become a valuable asset for the town.

The time is now

Since the lockdown regime all around Europe is in place , many people residing in the countryside (family or secondary home) realized they actually could work from there, being the possibility that most of them wouldn’t have considered earlier.

A significant number of these people didn’t return to the main cities, staying in the other location for the summer. Thus we have a very large proportion of the population who is now considering a definitive move to medium or small towns. The quality and costs of living are uncomparable with cities like Paris, especially with the Covid still being very present, limiting the cultural and social life.

To take advantage of this phenomenon, local authorities need to take matters in their hands and act swiftly. They have to propose spaces where all the newcomers can meet up, build and sustain new social circles, and minimise the constant pains of rural areas, like the slow internet and lack of basic equipment.

In France, the government is providing up to 150.000€ subsidy for opening a third place fitting their criteria.

No risks with EU dumping regulations

In Europe, public subsidies to companies are scrutinised. If considered as an unfair advantage threatening the European single market’s fair rules, the subsidy may be canceled.

Nevertheless, a local authority financing the space where start-ups can receive their offices, as co-working, paying a very reasonable price is not considered as a direct subsidy.

This is also a healthy approach to help the very young companies by providing them a genuine advantage in launching their business, by creating an ecosystem and facilitating networking.

Connectivity hub

The third place is a good start to connect the optic fiber Internet to an unequipped village or a small town. The installation costs are covered by the city (plus other public entities subsidies), which will be refunded in the long term by the third-place residents and activities created around the third place and the new related spots (cafes, restaurants, hotels).

From there, several smart city projects can rise, which will reinforce the overall attractivity:

  • a local hospital can expand its care possibilities thanks to telemedicine
  • schools can modernise the way they educate children
  • smart farming applications will facilitate the work of producers around the village
  • water, electricity, and gas smart meters reduce the village bills

It is extremely important for the global acceptance of the inhabitants that a smart city project starts from the third place focused on people and jobs, rather than just water or electricity consumption IoT monitoring, often misunderstood.

New technology is perceived as a social revitalization, rather than a human contact replacement.

Innovation catalyst

The third place in a small village will draw each creative innovator, maker, and doer into one place. In turn, synergies and new projects will take place naturally and bloom like a flower.

A lot has been written lately about the fact that innovation is more and more driven by encountering two different fields. Read this article on the necessity to have two PhDs for a real disruptive start-up project, or how generalists are better-armed for the near future (David Epstein, Range).

Far from Silicon Valley, at the very humble level of the third place, lost in the European countryside, the same type of synergy appears. One reunites at the same space:

  • a young graphic designer back at his parents’ because he can’t afford to rent in a big city
  • a DIY enthusiast in his fifties, who likes to share his skills
  • an IT specialist who with his family decided to leave the city
  • some students using the high-speed internet to study for their exams
  • a former travel agency owner who lost her business
  • an artist (photographer, painter)

These are random, yet common, profiles of those who will be hanging out in third place, a combination of different expertise, skills, and experiences.

The main impact of the third place in a rural area

As the local coffee place or bar closes, the third place comes in handy to revive a social life in the village. It becomes a new gathering spot, where after working hours couples, spouses and friends hang around for a chat or drink.

Such social interactions are fundamental to create smart villages or smart cities leaning on humans. Picturing the services of mail, deliveries, or retail in 20 years, they will likely be automated and operated by drones and autonomous vehicles, hence the lack of human interaction will have to be somehow compensated, so as the rural life won’t look like a dystopia.

In the south of France, the small village of Arvieu reconverted an existing building into the third place of 1000 M2. It offers offices, co-working spaces, meeting spaces and also a small theatre. That was a starting point to regenerate local shops and markets, the real estate business, and all the public services (schools, sport halls etc.) associated with the arrival of new residents.

This is one of many examples of initiatives that engage a social and economic virtuous circle.

The equipment of a typical third place

The coffee/restaurant/meeting area: a coffee machine, fridge and kitchen. Sometimes enhanced by food trucks or pop-up lunch offerings.

The Makers area or FabLab gathers all the basic tools (saw, drill, wrench…), but also computer-assisted machines such as a 3D printer, laser-cut, milling-machine. Everything needed a prototype.

The design office: a co-working space with hot desks, already equipped with computers and the Adobe suite, with a shared printer and high-speed internet.

The workshop area: a physical library, conference area with a microphone, and maybe some amazon lockers for book delivery.

More common in France: a cultural space or a theatre where larger events, either professional (conference) or cultural (concert, show) can be held on a regular basis.

Some predictions for the future of third places

The acceptance and the diffusion of IoT in every part of the world are inseparable to the development of spaces where technology is explained and utilised for the greater good: teaching, creating jobs, regenerating social links.

It is very likely for third places to spread across Europe and expand through the progression of remote work and the encouragement of governments.

Moving forward, third places, depending on their geographic localization, could become even more specialised areas. The third place in a historic old village could develop a specialization in tourism tech, a small fisherman port in sea tech and so on. This is encouraging since the equipment could be more oriented and efficient, and the expertise more insightful.

The challenge is to keep the initial spirit of openness, social cohesion, and not locate the third places inside technology clusters, far from suburban areas. The third-place needs to remain the bottom-up spot for ideas, meetings and learning, the most human accurate translation of the smart city.

Links :

The official association of third places in France: https://francetierslieux.fr

The tiers-lieux of Nouvelle-Aquitaine: https://coop.tierslieux.net

About me // French Marketer who specialises in B2B tech and IoT. With the background of lobbying and over 10 years experience as creative director, I help IoT start-ups achieving stable growth, meaningful branding and long-lasting demand generation. More on www.dxm-agency.com

French Marketer specialised in tech and IoT / Malmö and Warsaw / dxm-agency.com