‘Smart cities’ take shape in China

04/05/2018

China’s urbanization and Chinese cities’ eagerness to “go smart” could mean great business opportunities for enterprises, but only after they find feasible business models to cooperate with local governments and put technology into application.

 

Imagine a “smart city” that tracks citizens’ every move, from purchases to commutes, to optimize everything from traffic to hospital visits — in real time. Such cities already exist in China, which is rolling out more smart city pilot programs than anywhere else in the world, according to a leading auditing and consulting company. 

The country is home to about 500 of the 1,000 smart city pilot projects that are underway or in the planning stages worldwide, according to a recent report released by Deloitte. The concept, currently being adopted by both small and large cities, is to interlink infrastructure with the use of software.

After IBM introduced the idea of a “smarter planet” in 2009, rapid development began, which a 2015 study from Utrecht University attributed to the cooperation between IT companies and the government. By 2013, the country had 193 approved pilot projects, according to the study.  

And while the Deloitte report noted that Chinese municipalities should improve their strategy, design, operations and maintenance in developing their smart urban areas, some high-tech cities have already proved successful.

 

In October 2016, the city of Hangzhou – home to more than 9 million people – collaborated with e-commerce and manufacturing giants Alibaba and Foxconn to build the City Brain  project.

 

Under the initiative, residents’ every move are tracked. Their activity on social networks, purchases, movements, commutes and other data are uploaded to an artificial intelligence-powered database. Using the extensive information collected, the database makes real-time infrastructure decisions.

Over time, the program developed a neural network for the city. Everything from the water supply to the average sizes of crowds in certain areas is taken into account. With a finger on the pulse of all the city’s goings-on, City Brain notifies authorities when there’s an emergency or a crisis that needs handling. It’s also wired up to everyone’s mobile phones, informing them of traffic jams or adverse weather conditions as they develop.

According to New Scientist, the experiment was a success. Traffic congestion, road accidents and crime decreased as the program acted on data-driven conclusions rather than human reasoning. It also used months’ worth of data to work out optimal future scenarios for smoother commutes and safer streets.

 

With less laws and public concern over online privacy, China collected the residents’ data to better improve their life.

 

While the project as-is would not mesh well with American and European conceptions of privacy, a version that collected different types of data or allowed residents to opt-in could be exported abroad. Beyond traffic and weather, smart technology is being used to promote clean, renewable energy and more efficient medical care.  

Last year, the president of Sir Run Run Shaw Hospital of the School of Medicine at Zhejiang University, said that patients will soon be able to take care of preliminary processes using their mobile phones, reducing the average time patients spend waiting in the hospital.

With the goal of transitioning from “the factory of the world” to a leader in the innovation economy, the Chinese government is encouraging smart city programs like the one in Hangzhou with more policy support and financial investment on the way, according to a senior Deloitte partner.

The country plans on fostering 100 additional smart cities by 2020, potentially reshaping the urban landscape of the entire country.

 

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