Spring 2003

The Digital City of Parthenay: Social Networks and Civic Nets
by Federico Casalegno

The district of Parthenay (17.000 inhabitants) is a good example of a French wired city. The "Parthenay, ville numérisée," project began in 1994 and actively got underway in 1996. The basic idea was to consider the Internet, from that moment onwards, as a basic and absolutely necessary public service that every institution must provide. Parthenay was the first district to become an Internet Service Provider for the local community (1996), providing both the connection and technical assistance to the inhabitants. One third of the inhabitants now regularly use email.

Merge the Real and the Virtual

A key element for the spread of the use of new communication forms was the opening of "espaces numérisés.". The team working on the "Parthenay, ville numérisée" project set up some public places where citizens can access and learn about new technologies. The first public place was opened in 1996. Now there are twelve. Every site is equipped with networked computers and tools (scanners, printers, etc.). Every site is targeted (but not exclusively) to a specific issue. For example, there is an espace numérisée for small and medium enterprises for economical purposes; Maisons du Jeux is a place for games and playful activities; la Maison de la Citoyenneté Active is a space for associations and culture; and the town hall for the relationship with the administration. In every space there are assistants that train and help citizens.

Two other key strategies led Parthenay to become an electronic village should be noted:

  • The equipment and the connection of all the schools;
  • The "1000 micros" promotion under which low cost PCs for 1000 families was provided.
Parthenay: a social project for active citizenship

In a wired city, implementing the digital tools and the technological infrastructure represent the last step of a deep political and cultural process. The dynamics of Parthenay's local development is based upon a social project that has been promoted by the town hall for more than 20 years. The culture of active citizenship doesn't consider the diffusion of communication technologies as primary goal, but uses technologies to improve citizenships and social cohesion.  Therefore, this culture of an "active citizenship," as the former mayor of Parthenay Michel Hervé defined it, is based upon three main elements.

  • The constant effort to give citizens a sense of responsibility, trust and relevance.

Actually, the citizen lies no longer outside of the decisional process and the activities of the civitas, but on the contrary they are directly involved in the social life. Their role is no longer imposed by a heavy representative hierarchy, but rather by an evaluation of their activities and projects on an associative level.

  • A development of the transversality and interdependence of wills and collective experiences.

The active citizenship project is based upon the idea of developing transversal relationships with new forms of solidarity; in this sense the classical culture of hierarchy and decision taking processes are upset and under discussion.

  • A strategic withdrawal by the mayor and the administrative hierarchy; that from now on play a facilitator role in the definition of the projects and in implementing them.

Within a wired city project, the mayor plays a paradoxical role. On the one hand he stands aside from an operative role—he becomes a facilitator and no longer a direct promoter of social activities—yet, on the other hand in order to achieve this result he must be strongly positive and he must promote the different projects with energy and persuasion. This shift of power takes place thanks to an autonomy model that results from a plurality of decision making centers that tend to emerge within a networked society.

These are just some thoughts about the original development of the Parthenay digital city.

If the more traditional systems of social representation evolve following a vertical, consultative, delegation and centralized pyramidal trend, Parthenay embodies the attempt in developing a horizontal, reticular, decentralized structure, where the mayor plays a real role of facilitator of the social, political relations rather than the decision-taking role. Finally, in the present evolution from traditional villages to electronic village what is important is that the technological infrastructure to be effective come (as Parthenay shows) after a long cultural and political evolution.

Federico Casalegno, Ph.D, is researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The full version of this paper From Cybernetics to Cibersociality: Civic Network and Relational Networks in the Information Era is available on the Internet. This paper is based upon a research I carried out in Parthenay with Stéphane Hugon and a research team for of the CeaQ - Sorbonne Paris V University. Thanks to all the researchers and Prof. Michel Maffesoli that made possible the realization of this work. Michel Hervé, with his team, was the real ideological and political founder of the Parthenay ville numérisée project. He was mayor of the city from 1978 to March 2001. Since he left, the project changed perspective and directions; this brings our attention to think to the important role of the charismatic leader for a wired city project.

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