In search of the smart city - a week in China

By: Carlos Oliveira on
14 minutes to read
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Last week I had the honour of participating in a delegation* from Manchester City Council on a visit to China to explore the opportunities for collaboration around Smart City technology. The visit followed the recent signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Manchester and Digital China, one of the largest suppliers of IT services in the country.

These are my reflections from the visit.

Same Challenge, Different Scale

My preconception coming into the trip was that the sheer scale of the country and the number of Cities within it (106 with a population of over 1 million, Europe has around 55 and the US 45) meant the challenges they faced would be on a different level to those we look to solve in the UK. However the themes of environment, citizen engagement, smart mobility, innovation and open data came through in every meeting we attended - the very same issues Manchester and other Cities in the UK are looking to address.

 欢迎来到中国 (Welcome to China)

My immediate reaction when arriving in Beijing was “Where is it?” - the notorious smog really is all encompassing and adds an eeriness to the City. I would soon discover when travelling to Wuhan on the train that this isn’t just a Beijing problem - at no point in the 4 hour train journey did the smog ever lift and not once in my 4 days in China did I see anything resembling a blue sky. It is a stark and constant reminder of the Urbanisation the country is still going through and a big reason why they are so keen for their Cities to be smarter.

What next for a sustainable proposition?

Our first engagement was a visit to Digital China to hear about some of the Smart City projects they have delivered, in particular in the City of Benxi, where they have established a full e-government and payment platform based on an on-line portal and off-line citizen Smart Cards. The “Benxi Citizen Website” allows citizens to make inquires, deal with personal business or communicate directly with the city administrators; the off-line product “Citizen Card” allows citizens to enjoy public services, complete transactions and make payments.

The technology and the principles are sound, however there was a clear “What next?” that they put to the delegation. The investment has been made (mostly by Digital China as I understand) and the data is being collected but what is the commercial model that will allow Digital China to make a return on that investment. This echoes so many of the issues I have seen in the UK and across Europe, where large amounts of EU funding are going into Smart City projects and producing some really solid technology, but what’s missing is how that technology becomes a sustainable business proposition for both the Cities and the suppliers meaning that many projects die on the vine.

Transform The City, Engage The Citizen

The following day we made our way to Beijing West train station to get on a train to Manchester’s twin City, Wuhan – a near 30 year partnership As we cruised along at over 300km/h I got a chance to get a real idea of the scale of Beijing itself and then the vastness of the surrounding countryside punctuated by 2 or 3 other huge sky-scraper dominated Cities. In China there appear to be 2 choices, work on the farms or live in the cities and more and more people have made the move to start new lives in the urban environment with promises of better homes, better jobs and better services - the rate of urbanisation in China has gone from 26% in 1990 to over 57% in 2014.

In Wuhan, we met the Wuhan Planning & Design Institute (WPDI), essentially the City planners. The intent was to exchange ideas and collaborate around two major projects within our cities. For Manchester that is, Triangulum a huge EU funded project that is looking to transform the Manchester corridor into one of three European demonstrators of smart energy and smart buildings, the other 2 being Eindhoven and Stavanger. For Wuhan it is the re-development of theQingshan Riverside District, transforming an area of 3.5 million square meters that included an old steel works into another shining example of the modern, confident and outward looking China. The Director of WPDI spoke about its approach to projects of this nature, coining the acronym DBFO - Design, Build, Finance, Operate as the 4 keys to successful regeneration.

The following morning we were able to take a walk around the District that is being re-developed, the scale of the project by UK standards is huge – the equivalent of a mini Canary Wharf, but by Chinese standards it’s very much at the small end of things. The first stage is to build huge residential towers into which all of the citizens are then relocated to allow the site to be razed to the ground and rebuilt. I had previously seen negative news articles about how communities were being forcibly moved out of areas to allow the continual onward march of development. However, certainly in this case, the housing they were being moved out from was well beyond its shelf life - 60s built communist concrete blocks many of which looked as if they wouldn’t need much more than a kick to knock down let alone a JCB. While the new homes are most definitely an upgrade, this move does cause a big change to the community dynamic and brings up the other consistent challenge in Cities of Citizen engagement and how to make sure that the residents still feel connected, both to each other but also to the City itself.

A Chinese Catapult

In the afternoon, we visited the Wuhan Office for CyberSpace Affairs a government run operation that looks to bring innovative technology to the City and with whom Manchester have a signed MoU. Also in attendance were Directors and representatives of a number of Wuhan tech companies. The main purpose of the meeting was to run a Workshop facilitated by Gemma from Future Cities Catapult and to explore 3 core themes:

  • Building a Sensing City
  • The role of Open Data
  • Citizen Engagement

We were split into 3 smaller groups and given 15 minutes on each theme to brainstorm ideas around the opportunities presented, discuss the projects that could be delivered and the benefit they could bring to the city as well as the barriers to making that happen. Here again it became clear that the issues in Wuhan are the practically identical to those in Manchester.

On the sensing theme, they were extremely interested in the Smart Air app that we developed for Manchester City Council and how the app can be used to transform citizen behaviour, particularly in regards to using more public transport. They loved the concept of hyperlocal apps when discussing Citizen Engagement and the ability to use the technology to create a 2-way dialogue with their residents. Finally, on the topic of Open Data most of our time was spent discussing the barriers – data accuracy, timeliness and availability as well as that same fundamental question – how can we monetise this and justify the tech investment required?

Not a Ferrero Rocher in Sight? – and no POCs

In the evening we attended an event hosted by the Dutch and British Consulates in Wuhan, with many of the people we had met over the previous 2 days in attendance. The aim was for the UK and Dutch delegations to give a more formal presentation around our Smart City offerings and then enjoy a meal and the opportunity to network with the audience. My presentation focused on our City platform technology SC:Connect and highlighted examples such as Smart Air in Manchester as well as our work with Detroit and Green Collar Foods as demonstrators for the un-ending variety of applications that can be built if Cities embrace an open and accessible API-based approach.

After the meal, I spoke to several of the attendees who seemed genuinely interested in the technology presented and the opportunities for it to be applied to Chinese cities. Almost all of the questions I was asked were practical and outcome based – there was a clear desire to bring proven technical solutions that delivered a tangible return on investment, whether that return was more engaged citizens, better air quality or simply financial. The key was they are not in the market for PoCs or pilots – they want robust and ready to go solutions and it certainly made me believe that there is a market for EU based companies to bring their technologies into the market if they are able to find a solid and reliable Chinese partner company with whom they can trade.

Smart Cities Should be Felt, Not Seen?

The meal brought an end to our official duties for the trip and so as I sped back to Beijing on the bullet train the following day, I tried to boil down all of the conversations, meetings and visits into some kind of conclusion around what it really means when we talk about Smart Cities. What I came to is the following – A Smart City should be felt, it shouldn’t be seen – there is no one technology, no killer app, no city dashboard that makes a City Smart. A Smart City is one where all the technology is for the most part hidden from view, working in the background, sensing, listening, reacting and predicting. Technology here becomes the composer, orchestrating the huge ensemble of city services and other technology platforms, knitting them together and creating new arrangements that simply aren’t possible when playing as individuals.

In the technology world in general and especially in the Smart City space, there is a constant focus on the superficial – the front end or app that shows you just how “smart” the solution is. I’ve lost count on the number of GIS-based city dashboards that I’ve seen allowing you to display layer upon layer of information about a city on an interactive map. I would love to know who is actually using these dashboards and what purpose they serve. I would say that if a city is reliant on someone sat in front of a dashboard, waiting for something to happen and then pressing a big red button, then that is pretty much the opposite of smart.

Cities as a Platform

My biggest takeaway is that Cities and technology companies need to stop trying to solve these problems in isolation. Cities have to make the mental shift on how they approach technology and, rather than trying to prescribe what they want from the tech companies, they should provide them with access to the necessary data, frame the problems they want to solve and give them a marketplace in which to sell the fruits of their labour. By Cities becoming platforms in the same way as for example Facebook or Twitter they will open themselves up to a potential tidal wave of innovation and ideas from SMEs and tech start-ups who would suddenly be falling over themselves to build apps.

No one could predict the value-added services that people have built around those social networks and equally no one can say what could be built on the City-API, but if you create the right market conditions you will find out very quickly. Build once, sell many is a basic principle of any tech start-up, but right now in the Smart City space that only applies for very much superficial, non-integrated apps. Everywhere else it is build once, sell once, then start again in the next City. The only companies that can support that model are the large System Integrators who dominate the public sector space. This inefficiency in the market means that cities are simply not getting good value for their investments in IT nor are they getting the innovation they desperately crave and that is just as true in China as it is in the UK.

再见 (See you soon)

I’m already looking forward to the return leg of this trip when the people from Digital China and Wuhan visit us in Manchester next month and continuing the conversations we’ve started this week. The trip has definitely brought home to me the global nature of the problems we are trying to solve every day here in the UK and I hope that this has been the first of many trips to China as Shaping Cloud continues to grow and expand our software offerings in this space. So, did I find the Smart City? No, but I’m really looking forward to being part of the movement over these coming years in demonstrating just what can be done when you connect the dots.

* The delegation was led by Steve Turner, Head of Future Cities at Manchester City Council and included Li Yao from Sparta Technologies, another Manchester-based SME, Gemma Ginty of Future Cities Catapult and Shaun Topham of E-Forum.

About the Author

Founder of SPINR, Carlos has been advocating how the use of a SOA approach based around API's can provide the platform for true transformation in the Public Sector. Aside from SPINR he is also the Chair of the techUK Local Public Services Committe that aims to improve the engagment between the public sector and the IT industry.