Gilles Betis: Building Smarter Cities

Creating a systemic approach to improving urban communities

6 June 2014



At the forefront of the IEEE Smart Cities Initiative, which seeks to apply technology to improve cities and the quality of life for their residents, is IEEE Member Gilles Betis. He and his steering committee are in the process of selecting 10 cities around the world for “smartification.”

That term refers to the process of improving urban living by implementing technologies throughout a city’s infrastructure. It can include automating payments for services such as public transportation, providing more efficient ways to dispose of waste, or alerting first responders in case of an emergency.

“Developing a smart city is not just a matter of following a recipe,” Betis says. “It’s a never-ending process. But once the elements are in place, there’s no good reason not to start.”

The effort requires cooperation among the city’s government and its universities and businesses, as well as guidance from the local IEEE chapters involved in the IEEE effort.

“Through the Smart Cities initiative, we try to select the technologies that can solve problems cities must confront, such as traffic congestion or poor air quality, and then create a network of participating cities so ideas for progress can be shared,” Betis says. One example of applying technology is to use smart sensors to monitor water and air quality. Intelligent transportation systems, the Internet of Things, crowdsourcing information, and big data are other tools that will help solve societal issues.

“Technology can also help make cities more resilient to natural disasters,” Betis adds. For example, simulations and serious games can help with planning and training for emergencies. Distributed crowd-based communications networks can overcome the failure or saturation of cellular networks.

Betis was recently named the action line leader for the new Future Urban Life and Mobility project at the European Institute for Innovation and Technology and its Information Communication Technology (EIT ICT) Labs, in Paris. The project brings together researchers and business leaders to solve urban problems using technology. Betis is also the mobility and smart-city product line manager at the Thales Group, another company in Paris with divisions focused on aerospace, defense and security, and transportation.


The first municipality selected by the Smart Cities initiative is Guadalajara. Considered Mexico’s Silicon Valley, Guadalajara has an ambitious development plan, Ciudad Creativa Digital, that aims to advance the city’s already strong position in the media industries. The CCD will use technology to create a high-quality, socially integrated urban environment to attract those working in advertising, gaming, movies, television, and related fields. The smart-city project includes housing, recreational areas, educational and cultural institutions, retail stores, restaurants, and hotels.

It is hoped this project will generate more than 20 000 high-tech jobs, stimulate many millions of dollars of investment in the state of Jalisco, and raise Guadalajara to another level of competition. It will house local software companies, but the Mexican government also wants to attract international giants such as Comcast, News Corp., Sony, Viacom, and Walt Disney. According to ProMéxico, a government agency that seeks to strengthen Mexico’s role in the international economy, the project will generate US $10 billion of investment in Guadalajara over the next 5 to 10 years.

To help educate engineers about making smart cities a reality, Betis and others will be working with some of the local universities to develop master’s and Ph.D. programs, as well as massive open online courses on smart cities. “You can’t speak about the future without involving education,” he says.

He and his team are developing metrics to help the other, soon-to-be selected cities gauge their progress in the smartification process.


Betis’s efforts in smartification build on numerous aspects of his career. He earned an electrical engineering degree in automatics in 1987 from École Supérieure d’Électricité (Supélec), in Gif-sur-Yvette, France—the equivalent of a master’s degree in the United States. After graduating, he joined Thales, where he began as a systems engineer in radar and sonar systems, working his way up by 2001 to head of advanced engineering for the company’s weapons- and missile-system efforts. Four years later, he moved to the transportation systems department, where he worked on integrated communications, electronic ticketing, and toll road systems. Along the way, he served as product line and marketing manager and became the design leader of some of Thales’s most innovative products. He has been there for 25 years.

“My goal was always to link up societal needs with innovative technological solutions,” he says. “For example, behavioral change in transportation habits is key to fostering new mobility usage. Offering tools and mobile applications that simplify and extend trip planning will help the adoption of new mobility practices like carpooling or vehicle sharing as well as measure how much money drivers are saving.”

In September, EIT ICT Labs tapped Betis to help it connect communications technology, urbanization, and mobility in education with new business sectors as well as define new ways that people use interactive technologies in their daily lives.

IEEE is working with Betis to create a repository of best technology practices and comparability metrics to share with cities developing their own smart-city programs.

Throughout his career, he says, he has kept an eye out for new ways to apply technology, and planning smart cities is a natural fit for the way his mind works.

“When I shifted from transportation to smart-city planning, I started to think about how to provide new solutions to people on the go, helping them to use their cars less as well as to look for new ways of transporting goods and sharing information on such things as traffic jams and disruptions in public transit systems,” he says. “I also spent a lot of time thinking about how technology affects commuters’ behavior, be it with money, stress, or time.”

But despite his knowledge and experience, he acknowledges that building a smart city has to be done from the inside out.

“We can’t come into a city and tell it how to become smart,” he says. “Only those who live and work there can understand its needs.

“IEEE is a catalyst to help cities that want to become more intelligent and to share knowledge and best practices with them.”

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