PARIS — One click and you land in 2030, strolling along the green streets of Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan since 1998, discovering the new areas located along the River Ishim River, stepping into the cable car that criss-crosses the city … Another click and you're in Santiago, where the Panamerica highway no longer draws a monstrous 100-meter-wide scar in the center of the Chilean capital of 7 million inhabitants.

Urbanism can reinvent itself almost infinitely thanks to new, sophisticated digital models. With an interactive fluidity worthy of video games, these simulators are designed to help us imagine a more sustainable and peaceful future, but also as a tool for promoting cities that are making smart use of technology and innovation.

Last month, Eiffage and its partners Egis and Engie introduced their 3D urban demonstrator, called Astainable. In June, the engineering group Artelia, with Veolia and Architecture Studio, handed over their own urban planning simulator to Michelle Bachelet during the Chilean president's visit to Paris. These two achievements, which both answered a call for bids from the government in 2013, are destined to be international showcases of French urbanism, under the umbrella brand Vivapolis.

Aerial scouting

The French finance ministry put 2 million euros on the table to fund the development of these digital products, while Astana and Santiago were chosen as test cases for their relatively poor state of urban development.

Astana, which spreads out over 720 square kilometers and where the population has increased by 250% in 14 years, shows all the symptoms of rapid urbanization: a rising energy footprint (electricity and heat are produced using coal exclusively), air pollution, traffic congestion, obsolete waste management, of which 97% end up a garbage dumps. Meanwhile, temperatures vary between 40 °C in summer and -40 °C in winter. As for the Chilean capital, a good part of the Transamerican road traffic cuts right through its historical center.

"Astainable" simulations — Photo: Eiffage

In both cases, the 3D simulators rely on a sharp preliminary diagnosis. “The city officials in Santiago played along completely, and opened all their files to us,” says Charline Froitier, chief engineer of the Artelia project.

Among the results: With the data provided through aerial scouting, users need only indicate a building on the digital model of Santiago to know its dimensions and number of residents, allowing for a “city scan” that makes it possible to plan future strategies in a more precise manner.

Keys and bricks

At Artelia, engineers listed 11 “keys” to a sustainable city, which include, among others, mobility, social equity, security, the presence of nature and the “identity” of the city. The approach at Eiffage is to present scenarios at the scale of the urban area for each one of the city's “bricks”: transport, energy, sustainable construction, water, waste, air — addressed in the form of animated infographics.

By exploring a city's future in 3D, the visitor can search a multitude of integrated solutions, immediately followed by suggestions from French companies ready to provide the necessary services. This goes from an extreme-cold-resistant electric car (Zoe, offered by Renault) to a system that values combustible domestic waste patented by the PENA group, or filtering gardens that absorb the pollution manufactured by Phytorestore, a specialist of purification through plants.

“In every ‘brick' of the sustainable city, France has come up with real gems of all sizes. About 60% of the solutions come from companies with less than 100 employees,” says Valérie David, the head of sustainable development at Eiffage. “This work gathered 104 companies. We've stepped out of working according to separate trades and specialties, and developed a global approach towards the city, integrating all its dimensions.”

So will these demonstrators establish themselves as indispensable tools? “They make it possible to look into the future in an appealing way,” says Jean-François Doulet, a university lecturer at the Paris institute of urbanism. This collaborative work, where companies get together to complete a project successfully, is still largely at an experimental stage, and is still met with strong inertia from current players.

“The sustainable city must not become the new technology-driven establishment that the great — authoritarian — programs for new cities were yesterday," warns Doulet. "It requires the participation and appropriation of citizens.”