The latest industry buzzword which is bringing governments and technology providers together is smart cities. There have also been a number of conferences recently targeting chief information officers (CIOs) or chief digital officers (CDOs) of cities who are trying to implement or figure out how to make their cities ‘smart’ or ‘smarter’.
According to the latest market research report, the global smart city market is expected to reach US$1.45 trillion by 2020, growing at a CAGR of almost 20%. It says the top three segments in this market are smart infrastructure, smart energy, and smart buildings. But these are just part of a bigger picture that looks at developing an integrated ecosystem around governance, education, healthcare, mobility and security – which can all be labelled as ‘smart’, with appropriate utilization of technology platforms.
Globally, we are seeing smart city initiatives from governments everywhere. In September, over 1,000 ministers, state secretaries, mayors, city leaders, academics, CIOs, CDOs and solution providers from 105 international and 65 Chinese smart cities came together in the city of Yinchuan, in the northwest of China, to share their experiences about their own cities and best practice at the Smart City InFocus forum. As the conference organizer’s Peter Sany said, “This reflects the growing imperative for cities to become smart and their centrality to our lives. By 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population will live in cities, up from 54 percent in 2014. During that time, population growth and urbanization could add 2.5 billion people to the world’s city-dwelling population.”
Yinchuan claims to be China’s leading smart city, and it believes that the collaboration between the government and private sector technology providers (in its case, ZTE) is the key to enabling economic growth and innovation. The city has a population of two million, and on visiting, one can clearly see the stark contrast between the bustling old historic part of the city, and the new city, which has numerous new empty tower buildings and wide roads to give it the appearance of a new modern city. Judging by some of the images that can be seen at the Smart Yinchuan Command Center, it is already wired up with various environmental monitoring, traffic monitoring and surveillance capability, backed up with numerous drones.
It is probably one of around 200 smart cities in China – a paper presented at last year’s Conference on Computers in Urban Planning and Urban Management (CUPUM 2015) indicated that there were 193 approved pilot projects of smart cities in China by 2013.
The paper outlines how smart cities are viewed as a key strategy to promote industrialization, urbanization, innovation and economic growth (referring to the National Development and Reform Commission 2014); and that the rapid development of smart cities in China is largely attributed to the cooperation between technology companies and government. It also looks at how a smart city strategy is regarded as a powerful catalyst to utilize modern science and technology – such as the internet of things (IoT), cloud computing, big data, spatial geographic information – in urban planning, construction, management, and operation. The main objective is to integrate various information resources, and improve urban management and service level, as well as promote industry transformation.
The vice-mayor of Yinchuan, Guo Baichun, said at the conference that the key functions of its smart Yinchuan initiative was to:
- Solve city (urban) diseases – referring to factors like environmental conditions, traffic
- Provide precise services – for example, smart waste management, smart medicine
- Drive industry development – stimulating innovation and new enterprises, such as smart parking companies, smart hospitals
- Innovate city development
- Reform and enable simplification of administrative processes
He was keen to demonstrate that Yinchuan has utilized technology innovation to resolve major challenges in urban environments, such as environmental issues and traffic congestion. He talks about intelligent people-centric public services being enabled by the smart city technologies implemented in conjunction with Chinese telecoms equipment manufacturer ZTE Corporation.
The relationship between Yinchuan and ZTE goes back to early 2014, when through ZTESoft, the software subsidiary of ZTE, the two parties signed an agreement to invest US$500m on smart city initiatives, followed by a contract later in the same year for 13 subsystems to be implemented over a period of three years to enable the smart city architecture. The subsystems that were part of the agreement include smart transportation, smart surveillance, smart community, environmental protection, smart all-in-one card, smart tourism, enterprise cloud, smart government, big data analytics center, one cloud, operation center and GIS & 3D map.
The local government and ZTE say that the city of Yinchuan is a model for other cities globally on how the transformation can be made to becoming smart, not only in terms of infrastructure but also creating and delivering new smart services and taking advantage of the economic development opportunities that arise as a result.
Big data – the brain of the smart city
They say that a key to successfully creating a smart city in Yinchuan was the local government’s vision and understanding of the role that big data and a cloud platform played in transforming its infrastructure and services. Yinchuan’s big data cloud platform is the ‘brain’ of the smart city. With this and the technology platform from ZTE as the core of the infrastructure, Yinchuan was able to create an urban database which stored information of the city’s population, economy, buildings and infrastructure, and spatial geographic information.
Yinchuan also created an urban industry application database and subject library that looks at transportation, education and government public services. It says that data sharing between these platforms and from the big data cloud platform has transformed the city from a passive and reactive government to one which utilizes, processes, and analyzes big data to make informed decisions, turning government into one which can provide smart and intelligent services for its citizens.
One example of the result of this work is at the Yinchuan Government Service Center, which has been in operation for about 18 months, and has transferred administrative approval items to a centralized examination and approval center, separating approval from administration.
The process involved more than 30 different offices located in different places in the city being integrated into one government service center. This involved 400 different administrative approvals and public services being processed at a central point, so that citizens of the city can receive all government services and approvals in one place.
This means each authority now only needs one seal for taking charge of approval. The government says, “This is a revolution in administrative power rather than a simple centralization. It is a termination of the administration style that has been used for about a decade, as well as a transformation from decentralized approval to centralized services and from extensive administration to smart services.”
It adds, “Yinchuan, by reforming the administrative approval system, has changed the situation that each administrative department works on their own way,” referring to the old way of having to get multiple seals and approvals from many departments for government services.
Under this new system, the government service center has been visited by 4.9 million times by citizens, with an average of 14,000 per day. More remarkably, the government is keen to emphasize that around 3.8 million matters were handled with 100 percent completed on schedule.
In addition to public services, business and enterprise has also benefited from the streamlined smart government service center. Around 17,800 enterprises have been able to register, and 260 startup businesses in eight emerging industries such as e-commerce, games, and information services have been established, stimulating enthusiasm for mass entrepreneurship and innovation.
Government e-services are just part of the whole smart city initiative in Yinchuan. One example is a smart residential complex showcased by the government. There were clearly residents already living here so it wasn’t just an empty demonstrator. Right from the outset, there were signs of technology in action – like the use of facial recognition for secure entry into the complex, to the smart waste management system, through the use of waste bins with sensors to indicate when they need emptying. Added touches included smart mailboxes, with options for temperature controlled storage for delivery of food items that need to be maintained at a certain temperature until the resident goes to collect it from his or her delivery box.
In addition the complex also has its own smart hospital, with different levels of action depending on the diagnosis based on monitoring equipment within the complex. Minor treatments or consultations can be carried out locally or via video calling with a doctor, or it can be escalated for more specialist treatment at the relevant hospitals.
The Yinchuan government, together with ZTE, appears to have considered an integrated ecosystem to implement its smart city. It is part of a five year plan, and they are only 2.5 years into the plan. So when asked about any performance metrics that could indicate how successful it’s been, they said it was too early to say.
What they have been able to demonstrate though is that the foundations are in place – the monitors, cameras, sensors, and drones to provide details about the environment, traffic and other factors that affect the public, whether in the city or in the residential areas; the data centers which not only collect the data, but also support government e-services, especially the streamlining of services and vastly improved approvals processes; and of course the feedback that can help improve the quality of life for citizens. Yinchuan’s catch phrase that was emblazoned everywhere at the Smart City InFocus event was ‘Smart City: Wonderful Life’. The way it looks, the smart city implementation certainly is aiming to provide a good life for its citizens.