Parthenay, the Digital Town nay, the Digital Town : myth or reality
Parthenay, the Digital Town : myth or reality ?
i3 Annual Conference
« Community of the Future »
Siena (Italy), October 21st, 1999
Mrs. Karien Hervé-Van Driessche
Head of Mission IMAGINE Project
District of Parthenay, France
Technology and money do not suffice to transform a small town into a digital community.
Other, more important, human factors come into play : the willingness of citizens to
appropriate these new technologies, their capacity to reorganise their social relationships,
their ability to exchange in relation to the geography of their environment and the history of
their culture are prerequesite for the myth of the Digital Town to become reality.
20 years of pre-investment by the Mayor into active citizenship made of Parthenay a fertile
ground for launching the « Digital Town » project in 1995. In four years’ time, an equivalent of
1 km public highway has been invested yearly by the Town Hall authorities to equip the entire
administration, 7 digital areas with free public access and free training for all Parthenay’s
citizens, and to allow town’s citizens to inform and communicate freely by Internet.
What are the objectives of the Digital Town experiment ? How can these technologies which
abolish distance and time and which seem to push towards a globalisation of the daily
exchanges give new force to a micro-territory ? How did Parthenay’s policy makers and
administration go about creating the necessary conditions ? What have been the main
lessons ? What have been the problems ? What lies ahead for the future ?
The widely publicised case study of « Parthenay, the Digital Town », the international
recognition and renown the scientific research community seems to have given to it, the
increasing number of national and international visitors – some 2.000 decision makers only in
1998 - tend to indicate that Parthenay, the Digital Town is anything but a myth.
The i3 Annual Conference « Community of the Future » is a timely opportunity to take stock of
what has been realised, of the problems which have been encountered and of the main
lessons we have learnt.
The local context a prerequisite to understanding the success of the experiment
To be able to understand why Parthenay has been such a fertile territory to launch the
experiment, it is necessary to analyse its local context. Indeed, social scientists claim that
Parthenay’s success can only be understood and a fortiori explained by its proper specific
social and historical context .
Situated 50 km. west of Poitiers, in the centre of a micro region called « the Gâtine »,
Parthenay’s District which counts about 17.000 inhabitants presents all the features of a
classical rural area in France. With an unemployment rate averaging 7,81%, the medieval
town of Parthenay holds no particular winning cards. But many who have studied the town
will agree it distinguishes itself by its social and cultural vitality. The best illustration is
probably the number of associations, about 250 of them, a figure which reaches a score of 10
associations per 1000 inhabitants to be compared with the European local average of about 3
per 1.000 inhabitants. In the cultural field, 42 associations contribute to the organisation of
about 150 events (including 6 international festivals) per year attracting some 100.000
spectators and counting some 1.500 to 2.000 people active in the cultural field. In the
economic field, after the downfall of large industry in the early 70’s, the number of small
companies increased from 526 in 1985 to 1002 in 1999 employing 4.320 people.
This social, cultural and economic vitality is the result of a « voluntary policy aimed at
activating and stimulating individual and collective initiative » , a policy of « active
citizenship » which has been conducted by the Mayor, Michel Hervé, since the early 70’s
when Parthenay suffered, like any other French town, from a severe industrial decline. The
policy of active citizenship refers to a political concept which implies a certain method of
governance : the public authorities stimulate a number of initiatives (such as the Digital Town
experiment) but they do not act instead of the citizens . The town performing a role of
catalyst, will help the citizens to realise their projects, either by providing expertise, human
resources or material, by interconnecting actors, or simply by opening doors to other
institutions when it comes to finding extra funds.
Pierre Teisserenc, a well known French sociologist, after studying Parthenay concluded in the
that as Parthenay’s inhabitants do not have a strong sense of belonging, the local
policy makers «decided to play the card of creativity and of innovation in all fields of
economic, cultural, social and political life. This choice required a development strategy which
enabled the emergence of new actors and which lead to the constitution of new collective
identities based on values such as creation, experimentation and solidarity. The experience of
years of local development gives the town an image of a «social laboratory».
It is this capacity of citizens to take up new projects launched by local public policy makers
which partially explains the success of projects such as the Digital Town experiment initiated
The town as the ideal geographical entity for a true-to-life experiment
It was in 1995 that the Mayor decided that a « true-to-life » Digital Town experiment involving
all citizens of his town should be launched in Parthenay.
His philosophy was firstly based on the idea that there is not only an exchange of products
and common services which lead to the globalisation at planetary scale, but that there is also
a daily exchange which occurs at the level of the « city » provided of course that all
functionalities of daily life are taken into account : work, leasure, creation, health, education
and training, administration. The city is composed of communities of citizens interacting with
each other, « microcosms » where people and activities cohabit.
The idea for the experiment was further based upon the conviction that the town is a key
territory for inventing new forms of development and a new approach to political governance,
a strategic place to learn to master and civilise the information revolution, and to favour social
and civic appropriation of new information and communication technologies. In short, an ideal
place to try and invent a network society with a human face .
There are many past and ongoing experiments on one functionality of life : either education,
or transport, or administration, or work etc. But the Mayor believed that the new uses of ICTs
would lie in the interaction between these different functionalities, and that the citizen should
be given an active role of « producer » and not mere « consumer » of these technologies, in
order to allow a high degree of appropriation.
The objectives of the experiment
The objectives of the experiment were three-fold. First, it consisted of creating all the
necessary conditions to be able to observe the use that citizens would be making of NTIC
with a permanent feed-back between technique and use. The so-called ‘social pull’ strategy
was preferred over the traditional technology-push. For that it was necessary to create
public-private partnerships between on the one hand large industrialists (such as Microsoft,
Siemens or France Télécom) to provide the town with a viable technological environment, and
on the other hand small IT companies integrated in the city
and acting as go-between
between the citizen and industry. The observation would be carried out both by the town hall
authorities themselves (through the creation of a Social Observatory) and by national and
international teams of social scientistists (particularly the CNRS and the University of
Toulouse-le-Mirail in France). The town’s partnership with the scientific community would also
enable it to theorise about the changes of society linked to the new uses of ITC : the
democratic evolution of electoral campaigns, pedagogical transformation, the evolution of
The second objective consisted in facilitating the appropriation by the citizens themselves.
For that, it was necessary to eliminate some initial obstacles such as the price and the
training in the field of NTIC. In order to « democratise the access », the town created several
public digital spaces with free training and access for all. Simultaneously it launched an
operation (« 1000 PC » thanks to Siemens and France Télécom) which enabled private
citizens to access Internet at half the market price.
Finally, a quantifiable objective was set : by the year 2002, 80% of the town should be
« connected », using NTIC in all fields of daily life. The current figure stands at about 25% of
Transformation and reorganisation before introducing of NTICs
A conviction which guided the experiment from the onset has been that NICT transform the
nature of an organisation, the relationship between people (between the employer and the
employee, the teacher and the pupil, the elected representative and the citizen etc) and that
the major factor of inhibition of the natural development of these new technologies is linked to
the fears which they provoke for the individual in relation to his traditional environment. From
the onset of the experiment, we were confronted with this reality. The Mayor convinced that
before introducing new technologies, an organisational change should take place, and not the
reverse, decided to reorganise the town hall administration. The town
is one of the only ones in France to be administered without a Secretary General ; each
coherent mission is organised by a department which is animated jointly by a town hall
employee and an elected representative. The heads of department have been given the task
to mediate between the citizens-consumers and the producers of private, public or associative
services. They have to monitor the needs and the degree of satisfaction of citizens, either by
simple information on the existing offer, or by accompanying individual or collective initiative.
From within the town hall, a strong public-private partnership exists. This is also an important
factor to understand the success of the Digital Town experiment.
The vision that organisations should first be adapted before introducing new technologies –
the biggest obstacle to the dissemination of these technologies being the fears that they
induce when they might influence organisations and functions – was confirmed throughout the
experiment. A striking example of this is that some teachers in Parthenay – at least those
who have a vision on the future - recognise that it makes no sense introducing new
technologies into the class room as long as a pedagogical transformation has not taken place.
Other examples exist in the entrepreneurial sector, or even in the administrative sphere.
So efforts were concentrated on providing technologies and training which represented
something positive, facilitating technologies without danger for the individual, « inoffensive »
technologies which do not enter into the nucleus of the profession of each, but which rather
stand at the periphery and which could be used in a positive way or with an aspect of play.
The experience has been that if people find an interest in NTIC, then they are quickly
appropriated. Two examples : Up to a certain date, the agenda of the Council meetings were
sent both by snail mail and email to the elected officials of the town. From the moment that
snail mail was abolished, everyone consulted the Web. Another example given to me
recently by a teacher : the letters of information of the educational inspection were sent both
by snail mail and via the Web. The Web was only consulted very rarely. From the moment
that hard copies were abandoned, the server has been consulted daily ever since.
But it needs still more than facilitating technologies. From the beginning onwards, a voluntary
commitment of the highest person in charge (in the case of town : the Mayor ; in the case of a
company : the President or CEO) was necessary. Measures had to be taken in order to raise
the awareness of the local administration and the elected officials : an intranet was created,
and all personnel and elected officials trained (from internet consultation up to the creation of
Access to Internet needed to be « democratised »
In order to democratise access – a problem which I mentioned earlier – the town decided to
create public digital places where there is free access and free training for all citizens. There
are currently 11 of them, spread all over town. The specificity of these places is that they are
integrated into the community life : citizens go there for a particular reason ; they are not
show-rooms or cyber-cafes which have been artificially introduced into the existing
environment. The geographical position of the places (with the aim not to isolate the Digital
Town from the town itself) shows that the project is not an aim in itself, but a tool for the
citizens : it allows all citizens to access freely to Internet and beginners to make their first
steps without too many difficulties.
The first digital place, inaugurated in July 1996, is situated in the « House of Active
Citizenship » were people go for social reasons ; the second is situated at the « Multimedia
centre » the address for the economic sector ; others include the digital place within the town
hall (administration), the House of Games (games), the Congress Palace, the Tourism
Another important key feature of these places is the human accompaniment : there are
always young animators who train, help, explain etc. Citizens go to these public places for
many different reasons : from traditional IT work up to the creation of own Web sites. These
places also enable the town hall authorities to carry out the tasks of observation which they
set themselves to.
As to the frequency of visits, to quote only one figure, during May last, 2 000 visits were
recorded. Although all age categories are represented, approximately 80% of the visitors are,
however, below the age of 26.
From the beginning, the town also decided to be its own Internet provider : email addresses
and connected services have been free ; the hosting of Web sites, whether they are created
by an individual citizen, an association or a business has been free as well.
, a kind of urban intranet, saw the daylight in July 1996, after a
large scale interactive inquiry
by social scientists which revealed that citizens were in need
of local information, despite the awareness of belonging to a global communication network.
After the huge success of a first communication tool, the BBS, this InTownNet would enable
citizens to provide and have free access to multimedia information and communication.
Today, Parthenay is in terms of the average number of pages per inhabitant -
51.482 pages in July 1999 of which 14.056 pages (27%) are updated regularly - the «richest»
site in France. One should stress of course that citizens, whether they are individuals,
associations or entrepreneurs, have the right, via an ftp. access to link up their information to
the general InTownNet.
This is in contrast with most town hall Web sites which are centrally updated and controlled by
one or several civil servants or a subcontracted multimedia consultant. Contrary to other
towns, the Mayor deliberately did not want a small group of experts to take possession of the
new tools and to be its unique content provider. On the contrary, the approach has been to
disseminate as much as possible to allow the greatest number of people to get an appropriate
training for the creation of HTML based pages. In the first month of the experiment, a strong
content emerged – a bit anarchistic true – but under pressure of more sophisticated and
graphically nicer pages created by a fellow citizen – the InTownNet has become a major
attractive information and communication tool.
Technology and money are not sufficient
But despite this apparent success, despite the number of emails which is in exponential
progress (4.251 email addresses on September 1
1999, the double of the number in July of
the preceeding year, against 1 when the town started to allocate email addresses in July
1996), we have reason to believe that the Digital Town is not yet a reality.
In most sectors, education or entreprise to name only two, our experience has been that
other, more complicated and human factors come into play.
Educational sector : pedagogical transformation should preceed the introduction of NTIC
As of September 1997, huge investments were carried out for the educational sector, a sector
which represents about 25% of the population and which was considered a key sector for the
development of the Digital Town. Nursery schools, primary and secondary schools were
equipped with optical fibre and powerful servers, and up to 4 PCs were installed per class
room, an educational Intranet is being set up and some educational modules are being
created with the end users within the framework of a European R&D project, IMAGINE . It is
clear that no money nor efforts were spared by the town’s policy makers to massively link up
the educational sector to the information society. But the results, two years after the
introduction of NTIC into the sector, are rather disappointing. It is clear that the tools have
not created the needs (needless to say).
Taking the example of the primary schools, out of a total of 52 teachers for 1.100 pupils, there
are only 12 administrative email addresses (23%) and 18 class email addresses. 10% of
primary school teachers actively use NTIC in their class rooms for their lessons, and barely
5% have simultaneously adapted their way of teaching.
We consider that the pressure will come from the kids themselves. Our experience clearly
shows that from the primary school onwards, the parent-child relationship changes with the
introduction of NTIC : a child teaching a parent will automatically create a more intense
relationship whereby each teaches the other and whereby the parent listens more carefully
than before. The teacher has now become the «third party » ; he is no longer the person the
child will refer to for communication. This new relationship parent-child inevitably exerts
pressure on the educational establishment.
Already some schools have set up evening courses for the parents who feel the necessity of
accompanying their children into the information society. But this is not enough.
Unless the educational administrative machine is totally overhauled, the relationship between
teacher and pupil reviewed, and new objectives are thought for the school of tomorrow,
NTICs will continued to be viewed as an additional burden to the teaching community and not
as a working tool which should be used to prepare our children for tomorrow’s society.
A local teacher told me that experimenting new forms of schools like the ones envisaged by
the i3 long-term research programme of the European Commission is ideal but practically
impossible to realise with the risk of creating guinea pigs excluded by society.
Economic sector : pressure comes mainly from « success stories »
In the economic sector, NTIC have a dual effect.
They enable companies to know their suppliers and to get known by potential clients on a
larger territory. This is paradoxically more important for SMEs than for the larger-sized
companies which are able to use traditional media which in return are more interested in the
larger than in smaller companies.
The most striking example which comes to my mind is A.C. Motors , a small company in
Parthenay specialising in the repair of BMW motor bikes purchased from national police
departments and which, thanks to the Net, has progressed from 1 motor bike per month in
(date) to 1 motor bike per day in (date), multiplying its annual turnover by 25 and its personnel
by 10. A.C. Motors has become an exemplary success story for others.
Within a 2 year period, 198 companies (about 20%) have subscribed to an email address. 80
companies, some 8% only, have created a Web site which is regularly updated. The
disappointing weakness of the figures shows that only success stories such as A.C. Motors or
even Rymy , a local shoemaker who has conquered overseas markets by commercialising
large-size shoes (46 to 50) via Internet, or even the local baker
selling his recipees on the
Net, have incited other SMEs and that the environmental pressure of clients, suppliers and
subcontractors has not attained a sufficient threshold to trigger off a real need.
Secondly, for companies with a larger number of employees, NTIC favour the implant of an
Internet-based information, communication and management tool which increases the quality,
the reactivity and the autonomy of employees. Sofar, out of 100 companies which satisfy this
definition, only 3 of them – that is 3% - have created an Intranet. The inventory of obstacles
is large. For those who had already an information system, the main resistance has come
from the traditional computer engineers who have seen their expert role transformed into a
role of technological surveillance and pedagogical accompaniment of the end user.
For companies with a large managerial staff, one is confronted with the immediate need for
transformation of the tasks and social relationships. For the company executive, the
transparency of information and the horizontal character of the exchanges is a major factor of
fear, considering he or she is de facto in a culture of distrust towards the employees.
The feeble installment of intranets in the economic sector of Parthenay can be explained by
the public approach which has preferred facilitating technologies over technologies which
attack the nucleus of the profession (which is the case of an Intranet).
If I deliberately used the educational or economic sectors as examples and showed that the
results are deceiving compared to the use made of the InTownNet, it is to make clear that
there where the culture of exchange is based on trust – associative movements and
connected communities such as the scientific community – technologies are more easily
appropriated than in hierarchical organisations such as the traditional work place.
Moreover, after three years of experiment, we are strengthening the role of the citizens
approach with the hope that the strategy which privileges the consumer over the producer,
the citizen over the administration, the patient over the physician, the pupil over the teacher,
will bear better fruits than the reverse.
Often we are asked whether the experiment is transferable as such elsewhere in Europe.
Social scientists argue it cannot because the success story is too much linked to the social,
cultural and historical identity of the town. No cultural experiment can be copied as is proven
by many different failures in the past. Juan-Luis Klein, a French researcher recently
« The experiment of Parthenay …shows one thing..., one can and one should
find inspiration in successful experiments when one intervenes to stimulate and motivate the
sectors which are socially and economically devitalised, but one cannot copy. One should
rather create the basis in order to allow the environment to innovate and generate innovative
development experiments. The experiment of Parthenay is one of social innovation : it has
been possible because the environment in which it has taken place is innovative ».
« Parthenay, the Digital Town » is not a myth, but undoubtedly not yet a reality.
Perhaps, for it to become one day a reality, citizens should increasingly master their own
lives, society’s culture should be based on more diversity and exchange, technologies should
evolve towards both more simplicity and complexity, knowledge should become the motor of
Eveno Emmanuel, « Parthenay, modèle français et européen de ville numérisée », Book
« Autoroutes de l’information et dynamiques territoriales », chapter 7.
Jouen Marjorie, European Commission, Note de dossier, « Parthenay, un laboratoire
social » en zone rurale ; compte-rendu de la mission Cellule de Prospective, du 5-6 juillet
Hervé Michel, Minutes of the audition of Michel Hervé, 15 April 1997, « Cellule
Prospective », European Commission (text revised by Stéphane Martayan, 27/7/1998)
Teisserenc P., Les Politiques de Développement Local, Econonomica, Paris 1994 (pp.
Hervé Michel, « La ville comme laboratoire d’une société en réseau à visage humain »,
Une société en réseau, 2ème conférence mondiale des Maires de l’Internationale Socialiste,
4nd-6 october, Fez, Morocco
ESCAPE (a start-up company created in May 1999), APE Conseil, ARGIA etc
name+first two letters first [email protected] : for example : [email protected] for Hervé Karien etc.
d’Iribarne Alain (LEST/CNRS), Academic coordinator of the social science Inquiry in the
framework of a European telematics project METASA, Multimedia European Experimental
Towns with a Social-pull Approach, Project N° 1019 of the « Telematics and Towns » funded
by DG XIII, European Commission
IMAGINE (Integrated Multimedia Applications Generating Innovative Networks in European
digital towns) IA 1006 UR, European Commission, DG XIII
A.C. Motors, cfr. http://www.simar.com/acmotors/
Poupeau : http://www.district-parthenay.fr/parthenay/creparth/poupeau/index.htm
Klein Juan-Luis, « Que faire avec les expériences réussies : s’en inspirer ou les
copier ? », Book « Autoroutes de l’information et dynamiques territoriales ».