Chapters
Smart cities

Street smart

China is showing the world the benefits that data-driven solutions can bring to urban infrastructure and town planning

December 18-24, 2017
By DAVID HO
in Hong Kong
For China Daily Asia Weekly

Hangzhou is home to some 9 million people who live around an idyllic lake surrounded by well-kept woods in a city partly run by artificial intelligence (AI), which is doing a remarkably good job.

What is happening in the capital of East China’s Zhejiang province could eventually spread across the country and, in time, globally, as smart city technology improves. Traffic and transport are key areas of focus for smart city applications, in which big data and software are applied to make the most of existing hardware.

Hangzhou provides a road map for what is possible, but it is hardly alone in its ambitions. There are 661 cities in China, going by the country’s official definition, and more than 500 of them are taking big leaps to become “smart cities”.

In Hangzhou, the city government worked with hardware developer Foxconn and e-commerce giant Alibaba on the City Brain project, which launched in October 2016. Using enormous amounts of data, City Brain has helped alleviate traffic congestion, minimize road accidents and even cut down on crime.

The move is part of an ongoing transformation of China’s economy and society, one that is driven by both the public and private sectors and from the largest and most established companies to the smallest startups.

A bus arrives at an ‘intelligent’ solar bus station in Hangzhou, in East China’s Zhejiang province, on Aug 23. Hangzhou is on its way to becoming a smart city and the station has functions such as photovoltaic power generation, electronic monitoring, LED lighting, cell phone charging and free Wi-Fi. (IMAGINECHINA)

“In Hangzhou, we have 1.2 million vehicles traveling on roads every day, with 50 percent that pass through highways. The Hangzhou City Brain has reduced 10 percent of the time required to travel on highways, the equivalent of saving time for half of those 1.2 million drivers,” said Wang Jian, chairman of the Technology Steering Committee at Alibaba, during the keynote speech at a conference hosted by the company in October.

“The City Brain initiative will become an important urban infrastructure for cities of the future, allowing city data to be processed and analyzed in real time, and ultimately leading to more intelligent distribution of public resources.”

A key factor in the success of smart city initiatives is access to big data. And big data is particularly useful in traffic management.

City Brain has excelled at traffic management. If an accident happens, road users and authorities are alerted quickly and traffic flows are managed accordingly.

The City Brain system can predict traffic flows 10 minutes ahead of time with 90 percent accuracy. Since its implementation in September last year, traffic speed in the Hangzhou Xiaoshan district has increased by 11 percent.

Through camera systems across the city, Alibaba tracks road conditions in real time. Millions of servers clustered into a super computer via Apsara, Alibaba’s large-scale computing operating system, analyze data points and use proprietary algorithms to manage traffic signals to improve traffic.

Smart city initiatives are also being used in other areas, such as the mobile payment system on the Shanghai-Hangzhou-Ningbo Highway. Operated through Alipay, it speeds up toll payments for more than 40,000 vehicles every day.

After the success of the Hangzhou pilot, Alibaba is looking to take its City Brain elsewhere in China and the world. The system is also being used in nearby Suzhou in Jiangsu province to redesign bus routes and encourage more people to use public transport, said Wang.

Two such routes, redesigned by the Suzhou City Brain, have seen passenger numbers increase by 10 and 17 percent.

Having the infrastructure is one thing, but another is to facilitate access to the data necessary to develop effective solutions.

The use of smart city applications to take greater advantage of existing infrastructure could help drive economic growth in China but also in other countries across the region, said Ben Simpfendorfer, founder of consultancy firm Silk Road Associates.

This could prove particularly true for countries working with Chinese companies to develop smart city infrastructure through the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to revitalize the ancient Silk Road trading routes.

“A lot of the countries along the Belt and Road are land and/or water scarce. Smart city designs offer better traffic management, and tech-powered management systems help them make better use of limited resources too,” Simpfendorfer said.

“Aside from the obvious benefits of having a smart city, the Belt and Road countries that do adopt the design would also benefit from the price and performance balance that China can offer.

“China is a world leader in Internet of Things equipment. Constructing a smart city like this would require a lot of such supplies that they can provide.” The Internet of Things is the data exchange network that links different appliances, devices and systems infrastructure.

“What the Belt and Road offers for China is a window of opportunity to export their talent, products and expertise to those that need it. It’s a smart solution to development gaps and a win-win situation for all,” Simpfendorfer said.

Having the infrastructure is one thing, but another is to facilitate access to the data necessary to develop effective solutions.

Kay Axhausen, a professor at the Institute of Transport Studies at ETH Zurich, a science and technology university in Switzerland, said that making data gained from smart city infrastructure open to all is a vital component in managing mobility.

“Cities should make data available so academics and researchers can analyze it. You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” he said.

Axhausen’s own studies on Singapore’s bus transport system provide proof that data can help cities better organize their mobility systems.

By using data from the Contactless e-Purse Application (CEPAS, an electronic money smart card), Axhausen was able to track and formulate a line-splitting solution to help reduce excess waiting time for a particular bus route.

Once there is a shared platform, it can make it easier for everyone involved to have a hand in improving mobility.

“The number of buses remains the same, only the organization has changed after this study and that has cut down on excess waiting time. Developing a smart mobility system also involves making better use of slots on existing infrastructure,” he said.

But to make smart mobility a reality across more cities, support at the policymaking level is key, said Axhausen.

“It’s important to have clear, high-level policy goals and to implement the supporting policies consistently, rather than changing with each administration,” he said.

Becky Loo, director of the Institute of Transport Studies at the University of Hong Kong, agreed.

“A smart city is not just an objective description of natural processes or stages of e-urbanization. They must be goal specific,” Loo said.

She also believes that data on progress is paramount to urban development.

“It’s important to have data that tracks progress so we can identify areas of improvement, overcome barriers and accelerate change in a desired direction. That way, we can make smart mobility a people-oriented and place-based concept,” she said.

Forms of transport have remained largely the same throughout the last few decades. But what Loo feels is overlooked is a change in attitude and behavior, especially among the younger generation, that has given rise to the phenomenon of ride sharing.

Loo’s own work on transport platforms showed a need for streamlining data. Her study on ride-sharing apps in Hong Kong revealed about 40 such programs in 2012. But five years later, the numbers of apps have fallen to about 20.

“What this reveals is that we need a platform for smart mobility or at least a few that communicate with each other like a network,” she said.

Once there is a shared platform, it can make it easier for everyone involved to have a hand in improving mobility.

“We have so many smart people in our society, we should give them the tools and data so we can build smart cities together,” said Loo from the University of Hong Kong.

Ulf Blanke, managing partner and cofounder of mobile crowd management company Antavi, uses tech platforms to help manage crowded situations in urban areas.

At a few major events, they included a crowd-tracking function in the apps specific to each gathering. The data on crowd movement patterns allowed organizers to see where people congregated so they could manage traffic and better plan for future event installments. Antavi’s tech also allowed data to be played back to users of the apps.

“It was useful for festivalgoers at events like Oktoberfest to know which tents were crowded. That way they can avoid it and help organizers prevent a bottleneck in those spots,” Blanke said.

“We need to make data open so we can give the responsibility back to citizens.

“That way, we can also get everyone, from organizers to citizens, on the same page with regard to smart mobility,” he added.

That joint responsibility is a concept that others like Loo from the University of Hong Kong agree with.

“We have so many smart people in our society, we should give them the tools and data so we can build smart cities together.”

On grid but outside the box Solving smart-city energy issues requires collaboration across a range of sectors like technology, trade and urban planning

December 18-24, 2017
By DAVID HO
in Hong Kong
For China Daily Asia Weekly

China’s urban centers are growing rapidly, as is the number of “smart” cities throughout the country. More than 500 cities are being transformed into smart cities due to significant investment from both the public and private sectors.

But one of the factors crucial to their development is access to an adequate, sustainable supply of energy.

Solving the energy equation in a manner that ensures cities evolve as smart cities requires ticking a number of boxes, including cooperation among multiple disciplines, policy coordination, end-user engagement, the production of enough sustainable energy, and minimizing emissions. With its integrated approach, China is taking steps in all of these areas.

Last year, China’s investment in the green energy sector reached $87.8 billion, the most by any one country. The National Energy Administration has announced plans to invest 2.5 trillion yuan ($377 billion) into renewable energy by 2020.

“The energy system is quite complex. When you add things like the Internet of Things and smart mobility into the mix, the opportunities and the challenges increase. What we need is to take a look at the whole picture,” said Christian Schaffner, executive director of the Energy Science Center of ETH Zurich, a science and technology university in Switzerland.

Cars are parked under solar panels in Chuzhou city, East China’s Anhui province, on July 10. A major expectation for smart cities is to reduce environmental burdens, by increasing renewable energy sources and efficient energy usage. (IMAGINECHINA)

Solving the energy issues associated with the development of smart cities requires a significant amount of cross-discipline collaboration, Schaffner said. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.

One way to encourage this cross-sector collaboration is to create more open data platforms, so groups can come together based on the data available.

“Everyone understands the system from their own domain. An engineer would see it very differently from an economist. What we should be doing is to get them, as well as architects and urban planners, to sit at the same table and speak the same language to build an optimized hub system. But that’s very rare in academia and in real life.”

Schaffner pointed out that an ideal working model would be a “bottom-up engineering and top-down financing” approach so everyone can meet in the middle. That approach would also help with tailoring the energy systems to each country’s specific needs and challenges.

Cities, smart or not, require plenty of energy to grow and thrive. For a city to fall under the smart category, that energy should be produced from sustainable or renewable sources, waste should be avoided and emissions of carbon dioxide minimized.

“There are many ways to understand smart cities. A major expectation for smart cities is to reduce environmental burdens, including carbon dioxide emissions, by increasing renewable energy sources and efficient energy usage. So, a smart energy system is an extension and evolution of smart cities,” said Masaru Yarime, an associate professor at City University of Hong Kong’s School of Energy and Environment.

“Visions can differ and range greatly. For energy, there is the matter of efficiency, economic cost, environmental impact, resilience to external shocks and disasters,” Yarime explained.

Investment bank UBS believes the Belt and Road will feed the growth of China’s solar energy industry, which is likely to be worth $7.5 billion per year.

A clear vision from the government is also required, as is good policy coordination in areas as disparate as energy, environment, tech innovation, data, international trade and investment.

China has multiple initiatives backing the construction of smart cities, not least of them President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative — the drive to improve connectivity along the historical Silk Road trading routes. At its core is the drive to invest in renewable energy.

Investment bank UBS believes the initiative will feed the growth of China’s solar energy industry, which is likely to be worth $7.5 billion per year. According to UBS, government support will help lead the country’s solar power generating capacity to 225 gigawatts by 2020, beating the consensus forecast of 150 GW.

“We need hardware and software for efficient and resilient energy supply generation, distribution and storage,” Yarime said. “There are also the applications involving large amounts of various data that bear thinking about.

“There is also the need to engage all the stakeholders involved: Energy generators, distributors, technology developers, system operators, local communities and consumers.”

A key group of stakeholders are end-users, both businesspeople and individuals, who ultimately drive the power needs of a city and the country as a whole.

Christina Tang, CEO of Blue Sky Energy Technology, a Hong Kong-based startup aimed at reducing energy wastage, said data can be used to influence consumer choices.

“Electricity consumption can be a costly affair, in both monetary and environmental terms. In Hong Kong, 66 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions are created by electricity usage. A lot of buildings in the city, particularly commercial buildings, make up 90 percent of that consumption. This translates to $31 billion or 2 percent of the city’s GDP,” Tang said.

One way to minimize energy use is to leverage the plentiful amount of data that well-thought-out smart cities can generate.

She noted that research shows energy consumption is directly related to temperature, in large part due to air conditioning. “The number of hot days we have in Hong Kong has increased by seven times in the last century, and so has the energy usage,” she said. “That’s a lot when you think about it.

“Yet the average time we spend thinking about energy is approximately 30 seconds per month. Many are not even aware of what a term like kilowatt-hour means. That includes myself before I got involved with this issue.”

So Tang believes that working with the buildings is just part of the solution. Working with the people residing in them is another piece of the puzzle.

“A lot of programs concentrate on engineering solutions, like building design and structure, for tackling the issue of power consumption. But I believe we should use behavioral science to save energy,” Tang said.

One way to minimize energy use is to leverage the plentiful amount of data that well-thought-out smart cities can generate.

For example, Tang installed smart meters in a residential college at the University of Hong Kong. The meters allowed residents to tap into real-time information on their energy consumption through a smartphone app.

This inspired residents to be more conservative in their energy use. Tang compared the heightened awareness and accountability to a smartphone’s battery power.

“We want to empower people to think of energy resource as like a smartphone. Most people are very aware of how much power their device has left and are careful with how they use it when the power levels are low. It’s not an infinite resource and they should set a budget with how much they use,” she said.

“We are not mandating people with what to do. But by presenting them with the data, we are engaging them to take charge and own their energy consumption habits.”

So whether it is consumers, government, engineers or economists, everyone needs to make smart choices to usher in the era of smart energy.

“Ultimately, collaboration is key and everyone has a part to play in the big picture,” said Schaffner of ETH Zurich.

read more:

Be the first to leave a comment!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *