Voices of Digital Communities

The Tortoise, the Hare and Issy-les-Moulineaux

Issy of the Windmills (as its name translates into English) has an employment rate of 96 percent. More than 75 percent of its companies are in information and communications technologies, and they created 3,500 new jobs over the past 3 years.

by / February 22, 2011


You know the story.  The hare challenges the tortoise to a race.  The dashing hare sprints to within sight of the finish line and then, confident of his victory, lies down for a nap.  He wakes to see the tortoise, who has plodded steadily along without rest, in the race.

Brash and bold on the one side, plodding and persistent on the other.  We think of these as opposites and, in most cases, they may be.  But in Issy-les-Moulineaux, the famous fable has an unusual twist.

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Issy of the Windmills (as its name translates into English) has an employment rate of 96%.  More than 75% of its companies are in information and communications technologies, and they created 3,500 new jobs over the past 3 years. 

Before and after World War II, however, Issy was the factory zone of Paris, and it fell prey to the same global forces that leveled so many industrial centers.  But its fate was not to be that of the UK’s Midlands, America’s Rust Belt or Germany’s Ruhr Valley.  In 1980, the people of Issy elected Andre Santini (pictured right, ICF's 2009 Visionary of the Year) as their Mayor.  Over the next 30 years, his administration provided leadership that was by turns visionary, daring and remarkably persistent.  In Issy, the tortoise and the hare would up working for the same guy.

The hare’s contribution was innovation both brash and bold.  In the same year that Netscape, creator of the first commercial Web browser, was founded, Issy introduced its first version of e-government.  In 1998, when the telecommunications monopoly ended, Issy became the first city in France to offer its businesses a choice of carriers, because Mayor Santini’s team had negotiated public-private partnerships with competitors in advance.  Two years later, the Santini administration outsourced its entire IT infrastructure in order to speed up the rate of change.  In the first decade of the new century, citizens were participating online in developing the city’s budget, parents were connecting online with their kids in cyber-kindergartens, and www.issy.com was receiving over 1 million visits per year. 

Of the 35,000 households in Issy, more than 85% have broadband connections, compared with the French average of 50%.  Nine out of ten citizens are daily users of the Internet and 98% told a pollster that it has fundamentally changed their lives.  The latest innovation is Issy 3D, which gives politicians, professionals and citizens a way to understand and affect the future development of the cityscape.  A population thriving on digital connectivity has become a test bed for new technologies and Issy had become a magnet for the companies that make them.

The tortoise’s contribution was to plod forward persistently year after year.  Issy’s progress is based on a strategy it calls the “innovation triangle,” in which businesses serve as technology facilitators, citizens as users and government as the initiator and coordinator of projects.  A government committee, composed of administrators and politicians, oversees the many projects and maintains focus on objectives.  Issy does not offer financial incentives to business to relocate into the city, but it engages creatively to ensure that the community has the right ecosystem for continued innovation.  For example, Issy is without a university – but it has succeeded in ensuring that France Telecom trains its telecom engineers, Studec TV trains broadcast professionals and the Paris Bar School trains lawyers there. 

Mayor Santini has also insisted that no segment of the population be left behind.  Senior citizens learn to use computers and the Internet in the familiar and comforting environment of Cyber Tearooms.  Older computers donated by business and government are refurbished and sold at affordable prices to low-income families.  The community’s latest project is the Lassere Rest Home, which uses leading-edge video technologies to keep its elderly residents engaged with each other and with the community.  These are all long-term investments that require a determination to stay the course, despite the ups and downs of the economy and politics. 

In the broadband economy, the race has no finish line.  But if it did, you just might find the tortoise and hare nearby, sharing a drink in one of Issy’s sidewalk cafes, talking of their progress so far and toasting the achievements still to come.

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.