China Is Making Its Cities ‘Smarter.’ Can it Make Them Wiser?
The concept of a “smart” city — in which digital technologies like data are collected and used to improve urban planning and resident well-being — can be traced back to at least the 1970s, with the publication of the first urban big data project: “A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles.”
The idea was refined over the ensuing decades, as cities like Amsterdam experimented with “digital cities” and companies including IBM and Cisco invested in urban analytics. But it wasn’t until the Smart City Expo and World Congress in 2011 that smart cities really took off around the world.
When China launched its first Smart City Pilot Project the following year, the program’s goals were expansive: to encourage the use of data to resolve problems of city management related to population, transportation, healthcare, education, crime, and the environment. Within five years, more than 500 Chinese cities had drawn up their own smart city plans, and the scope and scale of China’s smart city ambitions now dwarf those of other countries.
Media coverage of the smart city phenomenon tends to be split. On the one side, you have utopian promises of big data-enabled urban governance and “city brains”; on the other, critics warn of a looming dystopia characterized by omnipresent surveillance and mandatory facial recognition.
Yet much of China’s fascination with smart cities stems from more mundane sources, like the country’s experiences during its rapid and still-ongoing urbanization process. In developing countries like China, ever denser and more mobile populations present real challenges to established urban management models. New technologies capable of processing huge amounts of data can seem like an appealing solution.
Officials aren’t the only ones interested in building “smarter” cities. Many private firms see the smart city program as a potential bonanza, and they have rushed to partner with local governments to roll out experimental new technologies. These agreements are often sold as mutually beneficial: Cities receive cutting-edge software and hardware, while firms gain access to valuable personal data on residents, many of them young and upwardly mobile. Leading Chinese tech companies like Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei, and Hikvision are deeply involved in the country’s smart city projects, but this phenomenon is not limited to Chinese firms: Microsoft, Amazon, and even Toyota have all proposed their own smart-city solutions.
Although the big promises — or dire warnings — surrounding smart cities projects tend to get the headlines, my own experiences auditing smart city programs across China suggests a murkier picture. I found that many project designers didn’t have a clear idea of what, exactly, they were trying to achieve. They proudly showed off exciting new technologies like 5G, but when I asked how it would be used, they either couldn’t say, or they reeled off ideas that seemed more like part of a wish list than an actionable plan.
Put bluntly, they sounded more like tech salespeople than city bureaucrats. That’s not surprising, as the public-private partnership model being used to power smart city programs around the world often puts large private firms in the driver’s seat.
This can lead to awkward conflicts of interest. The starting point of urban planning should always be improving living conditions for citizens and creating safer, more comfortable, efficient, and affordable environments. While this is not necessarily inconsistent with the services provided by tech firms, private companies ultimately serve their own business interests, even if they come at the expense of privacy and consumer rights. Their business models also demand constant growth, which results in sales of unneeded goods and increases client cities’ environmental and financial burdens.
Ideally, tech companies would be neutral service providers. The reality is that they, and not urban bureaucrats or city planners, have taken charge of many smart city projects and bent them to their own ends. Scholars have raised concerns about gentrification and tech backlash sparked by tech companies’ intrusion into our lives, but a frequently overlooked problem is the fact that firms copy and paste their “solutions” to urban management issues from one place to another, as if building a city is like assembling a Ford Model T.
The original Chinese word for “smart city” was zhineng chengshi. More recently, proponents of the programs have started using zhihui in place of zhineng. Although both terms can mean “smart,” zhihui is more expansive: It refers not just to the deployment of equipment and technology, but also the use of new ideas and methods. In practice, however, those implementing smart city projects often lose sight of this added layer of meaning. Their answer to everything is simply more tech.
Sometimes, what’s needed isn’t “smart” technology, but intelligent decision-making, including thorough and accurate diagnoses of the actual problems facing cities. Is the solution to increased traffic congestion greater reliance on bikes or subways, or developing self-driving cars that promise to always plot the most efficient course? Smart cars are certainly flashier and “smarter” than the humble bicycle, but are they more environmentally friendly? More enjoyable? Do they make the city a better place to live?
Take my own city of Beijing, for example. Its smart city program has made real progress, yet the most high-profile technologies rarely tackle residents’ real problems. I’d like public transport to be more efficient, which would help improve my mood at work and allow me to spend more time with my family instead of being stuck in traffic or packed onto the subway like a sardine. I’d also like to have access to cleaner air and water, additional exercise facilities, and more open and visitor-friendly public spaces. Instead, the emphasis is put on flashy, easy-to-visualize “city brains” that rarely have a profound impact on our daily lives.
Another sticking point is affordability. Proponents of smart cities often seem to think inequality can be innovated away, but the truth is that much of this innovation is designed for those who are already rich. If this gap isn’t addressed, our “smart” cities will be characterized by growing inequality.
To effectively solve these problems, city managers must define their vision for the future. Rather than pursuing short-term goals, they should outline the kind of life they want cities to provide for residents 20 or 30 years from now. Guided by this vision, planners, tech developers, and the public can stop worrying about making our cities “smarter” and start figuring out how to make them better.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A view from the Mobile World Congress 2019 in Shanghai, June 27, 2019. People Visual)