Having become inevitable in our lives, new technologies seem to be making their way into our cities in recent years. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and cameras are being integrated into our major cities to improve the lives of citizens and simplify the work of public services. This is called Smart-City. Cities that integrate Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) as well as numerous connected intelligent systems (Internet of Things) for practical purposes.
These Smart-Cities have also become essential in the eyes of international organizations such as the European Union, which considers it necessary in its new development plan for 2020 (European Commission, 2019). A plan that aims to integrate smart city technologies in more than 300 European metropolises (Taylor, 2018). However, while technological progress seems obvious, this new development poses an ethical problem and brings us back to the issue of privacy.
But while experimentation is being launched in Europe, China is presenting more advanced Smart-City projects and rebuilding its cities around A.I. and IoT. In a climate more conducive to technological development, many smart cities are flourishing and making full use of the capabilities of newly developed hardware.
However, are these Smart-Cities that are appearing at breakneck speed in China technologically viable? If so, can we imagine a future where China will export its know-how?
A new technological cradle that has been taking shape for 20 years
The assimilation of western technologies
Until a few years ago, China was considered the workshop of the world and seen as a manufacturer of low-end products. In a few years, China has been able to take advantage of its position.
Attracting international giants for two decades thanks to its large and inexpensive labor force, China has become the manufacturer and assembler of most technological products that can be found in commerce. It has taken advantage of its position and assimilated the technologies presented to it — smartphones, computers, cameras… — in order to design its own products. Initially seen as of poor quality, not very durable, Chinese brands have nevertheless persevered and now offer products equivalent to the top-of-the-range Western products at a lower cost.
China takes a new place as an international leader
Thanks to its growing development, China is now a true world technology leader and is making huge investments in all areas of research. In A.I. in particular: at the same time as the Ile-de-France region is promising to invest around ten million euros in artificial intelligence research, Beijing is investing two billion dollars (Cadell, 2018) and the port city of Tianjin is planning to invest sixteen.
Although China invests a lot on its international opening and the export of its flagship brands — Huawei, OnePlus, Lenovo — a lot of attention is also paid to its internal development. Very little urbanized just a few years ago, China is taking advantage of its lagging position to focus the design of its megacities around IoT and ICT, with the aim of designing perfect smart cities.
Use its latest technological advances to simplify the life of citizens
China has been observing for about ten years now a phenomenon of rural exodus which leads the urban areas of the east to be overcrowded and overwhelmed. China’s large megalopolises find themselves confronted with numerous problems, particularly housing and road traffic.
Traffic regulation thanks to A.I.: City Brain
In order to respond to the various traffic problems caused by the considerable increase in the number of urban inhabitants, the city of Hangzhou and the Alibaba company are implementing the ET City Brain at the end of 2017.
City Brain is an A.I. that uses real-time data — cameras, sensors — to globally optimize public resources by instantly correcting the defects of urban operations. This has led to many improvements in models of urban government, utilities and industrial development.
In order to achieve consistent results, Alibaba has had to put in place very important means. ET City Brain processes huge volumes of data using Alibaba Cloud’s MaxCompute data processing platform, which set records in 2015 at the World Sort Benchmark competition by sorting 100 TB of data in 377 seconds. It introduces Exabyte (EB) cloud storage and new models of Petabyte dataset processing programs to compute network requests and responses. As a result, real-time data access times last only milliseconds. It is also the first system to use image recognition technology to analyze real-time video from more than 3,000 traffic surveillance cameras in Hangzhou, increasing video usage from 11% to 100%. It also offers real-time, automated and accurate vehicle image search and video detection. Its low-resolution vehicle detection accuracy rate is 90.46%. To achieve this, City Brain uses a neural network of several billion nodes and algorithms to detect weak correlations in complex situations. (Alibaba, 2019)
This system has enabled the city of Hangzhou to reduce the average travel time by 3 minutes, but above all to reduce the time it takes for emergency services to arrive at the scene of an incident by 50%, i.e. an average of 7 minutes earlier. Accidents are automatically detected by the system with an accuracy of 92%.
Although Hangzhou City only uses it to control its roads, the possibilities offered by ET City Brain don’t stop there. For example, China is the world’s largest producer of hydropower. However, as with all green energy the problem of storage arises, what to do with the surplus generated when we open the dam too much and generate more energy than necessary? ET City Brain could be used as a regulator of the dam transforming energy, by analyzing the energy needs of the city in real time.
More accessible parking spaces and public services thanks to NB-IoT
Due to the considerable increase in ridership, the number of vehicles on the roads quickly exceeds the available parking space. Parking has become a widespread problem in urban development. This time it is the Chinese giant Huawei that offers a solution: Smart-Parking in NB-IoT (Huawei, 2019).
Each parking space is equipped with a magnetic detector to analyze the presence or absence of a vehicle. When a vehicle is detected a signal is transmitted to OceanConnect, an A.I. analyzing the data in real time, which then transmits the information to the various transportation services, GPS, car and so on.
The goal is to eliminate the unitary management of information and thus to globalize it. Data can thus be analyzed: open more parking lots in problem areas, redirect users to free areas… The solution not only intellectualizes parking management, but also allows car owners to remotely query parking spaces or pay parking fees.
With its solution, NB-IoT, Huawei is introducing a new way of parking and managing urban parking lots that is simpler and more autonomous. However, this is not the only purpose of NB-IoT or NarrowBand IoT, as Huawei initially developed the solution to enable the networking of thousands of connected devices, in this case parking sensors, but why not water consumption sensors or road lighting. NB-IoT allows the networking of identical equipment to considerably improve the efficiency of these connected objects (Huawei, 2019).
The disappearance of the currency for the 100% digital
The increasing presence of technology in our lives is also reflected in the way we pay. Many companies such as Apple and Google — with their Apple and Google Pay services — are banking on contactless payment and the abolition of currency. This is also the case in China. Without any particular solution, it is above all a way of life that has become established, we pay, breakfast, clothes or hotels, 100% digitally. Everything is bought using a smartphone, flashing a QR code on the receipt is enough to make a payment. This system works so well that companies like Alibaba or WeChat, originally in trade or technology, now become real banks. In 2011 in China, only 3.5% of payments were made via a cell phone compared to 83% in 2018 (Daxue Consulting, 2019).
It is obvious that in addition to being a practical and fast solution, this system allows the companies behind these payments to recover very large sets of data. These data can then be used to better analyze the case of a credit applicant: is this person a spendthrift? How does he or she manage his or her money? But also to analyze the areas that generate wealth or, conversely, that do not generate wealth and thus better distribute public funding.
A promising model that is struggling to be exported internationally but seems to find its place in Asia
City Brain in Kuala Lumpur and NB-IoT around the world
Although very recently out of the test phase in China (ET City Brain launched in 2016), Chinese Smart-City technologies are already starting to be exported worldwide. These products are attracting huge interest from both the public sector — such as the Malaysian government — and the private sector — such as Veolia, Bosch and Philips.
In particular, Huawei is working with Smartparking Systems, an Italian company, to install autonomous parking systems in Italy, or with Philips to connect and optimize their urban lighting networks, the largest in the world. But it is also companies such as Accent systems, which creates GPS trackers — for animals, suitcases, etc. — that come to work with the Chinese giant to improve the capabilities of their products and reduce their cost (Huawei Technologies CO, 2019).
For its part, Alibaba is beginning to extend its City Brain data collection and processing solution to 9 other cities in China and abroad. In early 2018, it was the city of Kuala Lumpur that contacted the giant to lead its evolution as a smart city. It took only 9 months for Alibaba to propose a plan to the megalopolis of 2 million inhabitants, which should see the travel times of its citizens reduced by 10 to 20 minutes on average after the implementation of City Brain (Saieed, 2019).
China’s smart cities are flourishing at low cost and seem to appeal to their citizens, so much so that the market for Smart-Cities is reaching $30.4 billion in 2018 and is expected to double this figure by 2023 (Markets and Markets, 2019).
A policy that is difficult to implement despite efficient technologies
Although the various Chinese systems are beginning to show a great capacity to be exported, it is still complicated to ensure their viability outside China, or rather Asia. Yet the major problem of Smart-Cities has nothing to do with cost or technology, but rather with people. Indeed, after incredible technological advances, China is also building a network of cameras and A.I. capable of recognizing precisely any of its 1.3 billion inhabitants. However, this technological advance does not seem to correspond to the expectations of the latter, who are reluctant to the idea of an intrusion into their personal lives (O’Flaherty, 2019). In a 2018 survey, only 2 out of 10 Chinese people said they were not concerned about these very important data collections. Indeed, the creation of this camera network may well attack the privacy of its users whether they consent or not.
It can therefore be assumed that this will also be the case in Western countries that pay a lot of attention to the privacy of their residents. This could then pose a major obstacle to the development of the Chinese Smart-City market internationally.
Not to mention the existence of the GAFA, which also seems to be starting to work on the creation of Smart-City technology. In particular, contactless payment systems are flourishing at Google and Apple. And it was recently the city of Toronto that asked the American giant Google for help in reconstructing its riverbanks, which seems to displease the city’s residents, who are not enthusiastic about the idea of seeing more and more sensors on their promenades.
In conclusion, it is certain that Chinese companies today possess and offer efficient and low-cost technologies and products for Smart-Cities. However, once again, the issue of privacy arises and it will be necessary to get around this problem or to find a solution in agreement with the local populations.
Alibaba. (2019). ET City Brain. Retrieved from Alibaba Cloud: https://www.alibabacloud.com/fr/et/city
Cadell, C. (2018, Janvier 3). Beijing to build $2 billion AI research park: Xinhua. Récupéré sur Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-artificial-intelligence/beijing-to-build-2-billion-ai-research-park-xinhua-idUSKBN1ES0B8
European Commission. (2019). Smart Cities. Retrieved from Europa: https://ec.europa.eu/info/eu-regional-and-urban-development/topics/cities-and-urban-development/city-initiatives/smart-cities_en
DAMO. (2019). City Brain Lab. Retrieved from Alibaba DAMO Academy: https://dama.alibaba.com/labs/city-brain
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Huawei. (2019). IoT, Driving Verticals to Digitization. Retrieved from Huawei: https://www.huawei.com/minisite/iot/en/smart-parking.html
Huawei. (2019). NarrowBand IoT. Retrieved from Huawei: https://e.huawei.com/se/solutions/technical/iot/nb-iot
Huawei Technologies CO. (2019). NB-IoT Ecosystem Partner List.
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O’Flaherty, K. (2019, Février 18). China Facial Recognition Database Leak Sparks Fears Over Mass Data Collection. Récupéré sur Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kateoflahertyuk/2019/02/18/china-facial-recognition-database-leak-sparks-fears-over-mass-data-collection/#4b0cdd46fb40
Saieed, Z. (2019, Avril 25). Kuala Lumpur set to become smart city next year. Récupéré sur Thestar: https://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2019/04/25/kuala-lumpur-set-to-become-smart-city-next-year/
Taylor, C. (2018, Juin 11). Europe aims to have 300 smart cities by end of next year. Récupéré sur Energy post: https://energypost.eu/europe-aims-to-have-300-smart-cities-next-year/