A short two hour ride from Paris on the TGV (France’s high-speed rail network) lays the city of Lyon, France. Often overlooked as France’s ‘second city’, it doesn’t receive the broad, international notoriety that Paris has long enjoyed.
Best known for its culinary prowess, most naturally associate Lyon with world-class food or wine.
Unbeknownst to many outside of Europe, Lyon has a long history of economic and geographic importance dating all the way back to the Roman Empire. Of late, Lyon has been quietly developing itself into a modern nexus of technology and innovation. With a unique composition of history and a forward-thinking community the city is becoming a formidable player on the global economic scene.
A Brief History
Credit to its strategic positioning at the confluence of the Saône and Rhône rivers, the city of Lyon was first established as a military colony of the Roman Empire in 43 BC.
Following the collapse of the Roman empire, the city maintained its political importance and established itself as a key European trade hub. Within months of Gutenberg’s monumental printing press, Lyon had become one of Europe’s foremost publishing centers. Later in the 17-18th centuries, Lyon further developed its silk industry and became the largest producer in all of Europe — over 30% of the population worked in the silk industry by the late 18th century. A few years later the cinema was invented by the world famous Lumière brothers in Lyon.
On the Fresco of the Lyonnais, some of the cities most important historical figures are displayed, including 24 historical and 6 contemporary figures.
Today, the city is known as one of the top gastronomy destinations in Europe and has produced many of the worlds preeminent culinary figures. On a recent visit, Anthony Bourdain toured the city with the celebrated Lyonnaise chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud. The pair visited the cafeteria of a local school where second graders devoured gourmet dishes and deserts prepared by professionally trained culinarians. A distant cry from the meals many american children are subjected to on a daily basis.
The Festival of Lights
The largest event of the year in Lyon is the annual Fête des Lumières (Festival of Lights). Typically scheduled the 6th-9th of December, the event is an ode to the Virgin Mary that brings around 4 Million visitors to the city.
The festival began as a simple ritual where Lyonnais would decorate their windows and balconies with candles and lights. Today, the festival has transformed into a jaw-dropping array of modern light shows, blending displays by some of the worlds top artists with projects of up and coming ones.
This year was different.
After the tragic attacks that took place in Paris on November 2015, organizers decided that it was simply not possible to handle the massive influx of tourists and were forced to cancel the event. Instead, they decided to turn back towards the origins of the event and distributed over 200,000 candles for citizens to place in their windows. What resulted was an incredible display of solidarity and unity that flowed across the city streets.
All but a few of the light displays were cancelled. Thousands lined up to view one stunning projection which appeared on the exteriors of buildings lining the Saône River. Devised by French artist Daniel Knipper, the spectacular exhibit was a tribute to the 130 victims of the paris terrorist attacks and featured a scrolling list of their names.
Sustained high levels of economic activity have also fostered a plethora of intellectual and technological developments.
This includes Europe’s largest urban development project. So far, over 4.3 million sq ft of industrial wasteland have been transformed into a state-of-the-art neighborhood that resembles a futuristic utopia and showcases the latest sustainable technologies.
Aptly named ‘La Confluence’, the development is located at the confluence of the two famed rivers in Lyon — metaphorically the confluence of Heritage and Technology.
The project focuses on creating an eco-friendly and sustainable community that not only serves as a testament to technological advances, but also as an incubator for the development of new ones. A key facet of this initiative is fostering the growth of an ecosystem that attracts new companies, entrepreneurs and investors to the area. Detractors of green technologies have long said that its simply not economically feasible for them to become mainstream — the Confluence project aims to answer this very question by providing companies a testing ground to develop their business models.
To date, over $6 Billion Euros of public and private sector investments have poured into the project.
One of the more notable developments in the district brings in several key Japanese players, including renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. Dubbed ‘The Hikari Project’ (Hikari is ‘light’ in Japanese), engineers have created three cutting-edge buildings that will be the first positive-energy development (PED) in Europe.
Sitting right at the confluence of the two rivers, the brand new Musee des Confluences is the hallmark of innovation and modernity in Lyon. Coming at a price tag of over $300M USD, the most impressive element of the museum is the architecture of the building itself. Comprised of a steel and crystal glass frame, the building is constantly changing depending upon the amount of light that permeates its frame each day.
At the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers, this airy structure of crystal glass and intersecting steel offers an unparalleled view that changes with the light of day, the seasons and the weather.Helene Lafont-Couturier, Director, Musee des Confluences
Opening its doors just last December, the Musee des confluences contains a wide array of exhibits. The core narrative tells the story of mankind from his origins all the way through to present day.
Walk 5 minutes down the banks of the Saône and you will find La Sucrière, the contemporary art museum of Lyon. Formerly a factory warehouse that was used to store sugar, the renovated exhibition space presents an eclectic array of abstract art. On the rooftop of the building is Le Sucre, a hip nightclub roller disco hybrid that welcomes patrons of all ages. Later in the night the space hosts a range of concerts, including some of the regions top house music DJ’s.
Where Antiquity and Innovation Meet
There seems to be a magical synergy that emanates from places which successfully blend historic tradition with modern innovation. Berlin, London, Stockholm, Vienna are a few internationally recognized European cities that come to mind. The ability to utilize geographic history and vibrant cultural intelligence as fuel for innovation is an inherently powerful thing.
It seems that the city of Lyon has begun to truly embrace its own unique mix of these elements and the early results have been nothing short of exceptional. Lyon has a long history of rebellion, adaptation, and perseverance that will serve it well as it begins to compete on a truly global scale.
StackStreet visited Lyon as part of a press tour organized by OnlyLyon. This is piece #1 of an ongoing series of articles about the city of Lyon. The next piece will discuss specific initiatives taken by the city to further develop its tech startup ecosystem.