The 21st century version of the French Revolution is well underway. It’s a digital one, right in your backyard.
Things are happening in and around Nice, and as everyone who lives here or has recently visited knows, the positive energy is palpable at every corner. The area has become the French leader in digital innovation, and culture and heritage are integral parts of the equation: This is the takeaway of a recent meeting at the Maison de la Métropole Nice Côte d’Azur (MMNCA) in Paris. Mayor Christian Estrosi and City Councilor Jean-Luc Gagliolo (featured in video below) spearheaded a high-profile delegation of Niçois personalities from politics, business, technology, and culture, each outlining their vision for the region’s near and midterm future at the 15th Matinale Economique at the MMNCA, the organization sometimes lovingly dubbed “the Countea de Nissa’s Embassy to Paris”. And it is a bright-looking future indeed: Just this week Mayor Estrosi also announced his ambitious plans to make the entire region of Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur (PACA) the first “Smart Region“ of all of Europe.
But back up a step so as to better see the presence and the future: Since times immemorial, the thin stretch of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Alpine foothills has always written trendsetter history. From the first settlers 400,000 years ago to the Greeks and Romans by way of Italy and Napoleon, and of course the first English and Russian tourists, Nice has always been a place of assembly at the crossroads of culture and progress, with a knack of (re)inventing itself and pushing boundaries. The current French Tech movement, by now firmly implanted and enjoying worldwide respect, is only the logical continuation and outward expression of this pioneer spirit.
True – when Sophia Antipolis, the massive business and tech park ante portas was first developed in the 1970s and 80s, it was not an instant hit. But maybe back then it was simply a concept ahead of its time, too American for local taste. Several tech and telecom giants had representations there but overall things were pretty low-profile. In the past three years though, when digitalization flooded the planet like a tsunami, its shock waves hit the Azurean shores and woke up the sleepy hinterland with a bang. Farsighted regional politics reacted quickly and began attracting a never-before-seen influx of innovation, talent, and angel investors to the area, and this is starting to pay off in a big way now.
At the same time, Nice kept doing what it has been doing best for centuries: building on its uniquely rich cultural heritage. Artists have traditionally flocked here for hundreds of years and have left their traces all over town. In recent years, the local creative scene has exploded, producing work that can proudly compete on the international stage. From the new but already extremely successful Quinzaine theatre festival to high-profile musical events, from sculptors and plastic artists of international renown like Michel Anthony to award-winning writers like Didier van Cauwelaert and sought-after photographers such as Louis-Paul Fallot, or Youcef Mahmoudi, the filmmaker who took Hollywood by storm … this area gives birth to remarkable creativity, often rooted in the very confluence of different cultures and ethnicities that has been its hallmark throughout time. In parallel, the Ville de Nice has stepped up its activities with a dizzying array of top quality events and exhibits that easily rival Paris.
So what does all of that have to do with the aforesaid tech revolution in arts, culture, and experiential tourism, and the economic growth associated with it?
Capitalizing on the rapid adoption and tremendous potential of smartphones, which in turn enables the emergence of virtual-reality technologies and the surge of participation- and share-based economy, it is only natural that culture goes digital, too. Ever since artists have figured out how to repurpose technology and social media to enhance culture, and learned how to digitalize their products, or even places such as galleries or museums, the game has changed. Suddenly they are no longer confined to their atelier but can bring their work to the entire world without leaving town as for instance Patrick Moya is proving so masterfully. Reversely, visitors can discover a whole new dimension of experiential tourism, thanks to smart apps like Monument Tracker, which aims to playfully educate the wide-eyed wanderer by feeding them all sorts of interesting information on their stroll through town. A game changer. Technologies like these are even an exciting novelty for longtime residents who now can explore places off the beaten path they never had access to before, and kindling a whole new appreciation for one’s hometown…. a mission particularly dear to Jean-Luc Gag’s heart who as a multi-hatted City Councilor and native son is also in charge of preserving tradition and heritage for generations to come.
And who else but the Ville de Nice has positioned itself as an avid early adopter of technology to complement and enhance its cultural heritage … author and journalist Corinne Paolini, who also works with the City’s communications department, just published “Entre mer et montagne, le génie d’un territoire” (Between sea and mountain, the spirit of a region), a first-of-its-kind, 240 page coffee table book which integrates traditional printed work with innovative smartapp technology, showcasing the culture and history of Nice and its surrounding communities. Written in French with English translations, and illustrated with over 500 stunning photos, it combines the look and feel of a beautiful art book with a digitally enhanced experience: after downloading the matching app, the reader can peruse the book at leisure and access complementary content marked with an icon whenever desired… an excerpt from a concert, a 360 panoramic view from a mountain top, or additional historic background information of a particular monument, for example.
And this is exactly where it all comes together: Nice’s incredible cultural wealth attracts millions of visitors every year who increasingly seek a more personalized, authentic, immersive experience… wanting to be a participant rather than an onlooker. Artists, theatres, museums, writers … they all play a crucial role in this, as the source of many of those experiences. All they need is the global visibility to showcase their talent.
Technology responds to those dual demands, and thanks to the foresight of the City’s and the region’s economic and political players, the infrastructure has been put in place to also attract the skills and the money necessary to make it happen. Thanks to tax incentives and a lightened administrative load, but also an extremely attractive environment with great work/life balance, and excellent international universities, start-ups are sprouting like mushrooms. Locals mingle with more expats than ever before, and English is almost as widely spoken as French now, at least among the young generation. Basic things like municipal free Wifi? While Paris currently hails the arrival of that service along the Champs-Elysées a couple of weeks ago, half of Nice has been equipped with it for years now. And the Niçois city fathers keep an eye not only on economy but also on ecology and are putting mechanisms in place that encourage an environmentally-friendly lifestyle without the hassle.
The result: La French Tech, made in Nice, is creating a booming socio-economic environment that once again proves why this region has been at the forefront of progress ever since that fellow who left his immortalized footprint in the sand 400,000 years ago chose it to build a first settlement here.
Lead image © Hannah Wei; photo of girl with smartphone courtesy Métropole Nice Côte d’Azur; Monument Tracker via its website; Entre Mer et Montagne cover courtesy Bilbliothèque Nationale de France; final image © Ville de Nice