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Life in a Single Click: China’s Smart Cities

Updated on July 5, 2017

Since 1986, China has operated an auction system for selling car number plates. Buying a car is not difficult, but if it is not to be just an expensive adornment to the family but also a means of transport, the average resident of the Middle Kingdom has to make a huge effort.

Nevertheless, by 2011, the number of private vehicles in Beijing was close to 5 million and the Chinese authorities were again facing the threat of gridlock. That is when they began distributing number plates via a lottery at a rate of 250,000 per year, falling to 150,000 per year from 2014. By spring 2014, only one lottery ticket holder out of 150 was getting a number. So much for a “fair” system, though in a country with over 1.385 billion people measures like this are inevitable. Or rather were inevitable, until the era of IoT arrived.

Many countries are working on projects to create “smart” towns, but China’s efforts in this direction deserve particular attention. The Chinese government’s ambitious plans – both in terms of the national economy and the future of its cities – are giving a powerful boost to the development of the Internet of Things in that country. And as we know, if China sets itself a goal, the result is sure to follow soon.

When the possibility of connecting urban infrastructure to the worldwide web turned from a fantasy future into today’s reality, technology giants like Huawei, Tencent and Ant Financial went to work on upgrading Chinese cities.

Citizens of 300 cities and 30 provinces across China can use Tencent’s WeChat service, which gives them the fastest possible access to all government organizations – the police, educational and medical establishments. As it gathers and accumulates requests, the service is capable of self-teaching and modelling situations for the future. For example, it can identify the most dangerous section of a highway and the time of day at which accidents are most likely to happen.

Using big data, China already has a whole range of apps designed not only for various needs, but also for different social and age groups. The 24/7 app for people over the age of70 gives the elderly the fastest possible priority access to appointments and hospitalization in municipal medical centres. And for young people there is an app that allows them to keep tabs on their children in school by providing information on their movements, academic performance and behaviour and feedback from teachers.

From statistics to specifics. Welcome to the little-known northern city of Yinchuan, capital of Ningxia Province. Yinchuan, with a population of 1.5 million, is the scene of one of 300 “smart China” pilot projects, aimed at making life more comfortable and convenient for citizens.

By 2011, the number of private vehicles in Beijing was close to 5 million
By 2011, the number of private vehicles in Beijing was close to 5 million

Face Payment

Yinchuan’s entire municipal transport system is fitted with facial recognition chips. A fingerprint can unblock your smartphone and the bus’s software can link a passenger’s face with his bank account and automatically take payment without holding up the queue to board. In the future, the city authorities plan to deploy similar solutions in other spheres of public life where queues are a particular source of irritation.

Solar Rubbish and Refrigerators on the Street

Lots of people means lots of rubbish. The solar panels installed on Yinchuan’s numerous rubbish bins not only help to save the city energy, but also activate a waste compression and compaction mechanism. The bins are smaller, they hold more rubbish, and the waste is more humane. In addition to everything else, all Yinchuan bins are equipped with chips that notify a centralized control centre when the bins are full and work out the optimal route for emptying them. Trips to food shops are also gradually becoming a thing of the past. Citizens can order whatever they need online via an app, sit back and await home delivery. Particularly perishable items can be picked up from special refrigerators located right in the city centre. What incredible logistics!

The solar panels installed on Yinchuan’s numerous rubbish bins activate a waste compression and compaction mechanism
The solar panels installed on Yinchuan’s numerous rubbish bins activate a waste compression and compaction mechanism

Virtual Mayor

Visitors to Yinchuan’s mayor’s office are now served by holograms rather than people. On the walls of most municipal offices there are QR codes that enable citizens to find quick answers to their questions rather than standing for hours in queues. Most interactions between citizens and government are also digitized: receiving a licence to renew your passport, looking for a job in the city’s labour exchange, housing issues...Processes that until quite recently required a face-to-face meeting have been conveniently moved online.

Visitors to Yinchuan’s mayor’s office are now served by holograms rather than people
Visitors to Yinchuan’s mayor’s office are now served by holograms rather than people

The same applies to healthcare. The internet portal Haodaifu Online puts doctors directly in contact with patients depending on the history of their illnesses and current complaints. In simple cases, therapy and medication call also be prescribed remotely. In the near future, TM Forum CEO Peter Sany promises us a world in which, for example, insulin levels in diabetes patients will be monitored entirely by sensors, which will be able to sound the alarm in the event of a diabetic shock. Other sensors will detect when an elderly patient has fallen and warn a first aid team of possible danger.

Smart cities are the logical future to resolving many of the unavoidable problems of urbanization. They are created for people, work for people and are undeniably useful for them. True, by consenting to a comfortable existence you give the city government access to the full suite of your personal data, but…That is the other side of the coin and a subject for separate discussion.

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