New Technologies to Boost China’s Smart Cities Project
Photo Credit: AFP
By Tai Wei Lim

New Technologies to Boost China’s Smart Cities Project

May. 22, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The construction of smart cities is the new trend in urban infrastructure and management in East Asia and the world. It represents the next leap of development after earlier trends in megacities and environmentally sustainable urban development. In the 32nd ASEAN Summit (April 25-26, 2018), the ASEAN chair Singapore proposed building a network of smart cities in Southeast Asia. South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan all have ambitions to build their own smart cities. Likewise, China is also heading towards this direction. In other words, there is a regional and global trend of smart cities construction that seems to be irresistible.


Based on past precedents, whether in terms of economic reforms or transitioning to the market economy, China has been building up its economy through gradualist incremental experimentation (from reformist Special Economic Zones to the Tianjin Eco-City showcase) and always with an eye for indigenization of technologies for its own program of modernization and the building of an advanced economy. This is likely to be the same case for its ambition to construct smart cities. China has ambitions in building a modernized, developed socialist economy that is integrated into the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, and big data. The smart cities ambition is likely to be a subset of such ambitions. China’s intention to experiment with pioneering smart cities was announced publicly in 2012. The major promoter for the smart cities project is the China Communications Industry Association under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.


Both the private sector and the government have their own respective interests and agendas in the smart cities project. Private companies in China are keen to capture a slice of the smart city market and offer their products and technologies for the technological needs of smart cities. By doing so, these companies have an eye for the larger export market in East Asia and beyond, since smart cities initiatives can be found region-wide. The Chinese government hopes the implementation of new technologies can also assist with policy implementation through technological enhancements that can help bureaucrats and technocrats govern the cities in better and more efficient ways.


These technologies can be divided into at least three categories. They can be in the form of sensors that collect targeted readings for analysis so that the authorities can improve the normal functioning of urban facilities and infrastructure. For example, sensors can be used to detect traffic flows. In the case of the China, traffic can become heavy and unmanageable during the Chinese New Year festive season when many Chinese return to their hometowns for holidays and to visit loved ones. Therefore, sensory infrastructure can help authorities decide how to divert congested traffic. It is not only during festive occasions that demand the use of big data and sensory devices to make traffic more efficient. Electronic sensors are useful throughout the year for some public transportation functions. For example, in 2012, even in underdeveloped provinces like Xinjiang, the authorities had already installed devices at bus stops to monitor the movement of public buses.


The second avenue for technological enhancement is in the field of crisis management. The Chinese government hope smart cities can provide early warnings of natural or manmade disasters for state mobilization of resources and rescue teams to help the victims. In the aftermath, private sector providers can help with recovery work as solution providers. China can use big data to collect information related to the occurrence of natural disasters over time (longitudinal data) and then use the data to model, make projections, predict and extrapolate future events. This will allow the relevant authorities at the local and national levels to allocate crucial resources to prepare for such eventualities when they occur.

Given China’s record numbers of cities from first- to third-tier types, there is potential for the country to evolve the world’s largest smart cities industry.

Massive disasters are not the only scenarios for big data management. The same technologies can also help to collect data which can help technocrats track vital information like the employment rate and spot trends in the labor markets. Human resource management and labor market trends are often sensitive because there are always concerns about unemployment and its relationship with social stability in any country. Having data based on past precedents and the longitudinal reading of trends will help the authorities to tweak education systems to make skills teaching more relevant to the contemporary workforce.


The third function is found in communication infrastructure. To coordinate large numbers of front-line stakeholders, bureaucrats need a world-class communications network and connectivity. Communication can help the state with coordination in mass activities, national mobilization, traffic management, etc. Eventually, given China’s ambitions in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China may be building and then syncing communications, logistical and transportation technologies with other BRI countries so that connectivity can be enhanced across the BRI region. China may also wish to work with ASEAN stakeholders as the regional organization builds up its smart cities network. Just as connectivity is aided by having a standard gauge in high-speed railway (HSR) systems, compatibility and inter-operability between IT systems are also crucial.


The stakeholder approach was adopted in building smart cities in China. First, there is a division of labor between local government agencies, national agencies and private sector investors. Ideally, the efforts should come from all three stakeholders so that there is a good sharing of resources. Another principle of smart cities in China is that the technologies introduced can help take over mundane and tedious tasks like data collection and curation, and release human resource for more value-added activities to contribute economically in other ways. In other words, technologies are created to empower rather than endanger human activities.


If the private sector is able to participate in the technological development and urban management of the smart cities, their embeddedness in these projects may eventually make them future partners of urban governance as well. This is especially useful if the private sector solution providers develop local technical expertise in the technologies deployed in the smart cities. The companies involved then become privy to technical details in smart city urban governance and can specialize in specific solution providing for a particular region, province or city based on local area conditions. Just as the companies involved in China’s HSR projects benefitted from their experiences in building and running the world’s largest HSR network, tech companies are likely to benefit from China’s initiative to build the world’s largest smart cities network. The economies of scale will be staggering, and the experience gained useful for future projects.


The challenge with all smart cities projects is to implement technologies and knowhow in accordance with the local city-level conditions. Thus, there is a need for local pathfinders and navigators to help out with the whole process of identifying idiosyncratic local conditions when implementing these projects. Companies that participate in such local projects may even gain experience in coming up with solutions to fit local conditions and may evolve to become experienced solution providers in the future. Therefore, there is an element of entrepreneurial opportunities as well in building up new solution providers businesses.


Given China’s record numbers of cities from first- to third-tier types, there is potential for the country to evolve the world’s largest smart cities industry. Even the remotest cities like those found in Xinjiang are not exempted from this nationwide ambition to grow and incubate smart cities. The challenge for private sector firms is to quickly identify cities of interest, understand their local needs and conditions, and then work with national and local authorities to implement their technologies. It will be a challenging and monumental task but the work in building the world’s largest network of smart cities has started.

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