Carlo Ratti, an Italian architect and engineer who is also a leading voice on technology in urban space considers China to be ‘the inspiration’ to the rest of the world competing in the smart city development race.
According to Ratti who is co-curating Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture 2019 in Shenzen, the country has a unique perspective towards how technology can be used to enhance public space. It offers great lessons to learn for architects and urban planners.
He takes the example of Shenzhen as a smart city and reveals some interesting facts about its development. So, let’s begin discovering urban China from here!
How Is Shenzhen As A Smart City?
While in 2019 Shenzhen stands in the top 50 lists of smart cities, 35 years ago its existence hardly mattered. Today, the city is counted among the world’s most vibrant metropolises.
Although in the 1990s the city had rapidly turned into an industrial area, it transformed over time in different ways, embraced nature and began allowing the city to grow organically. Unlike so-called smart cities including Masdar City in the UAE and Songdo in South Korea, the city of Shenzhen is emphasising on the human side instead of technology.
That being said, it is also focusing on technology. In fact, the city is using technology to accelerate its smart city development plans. And so, Ratti finds Shenzhen and other Chinese cities to have promising signs with acceleration being the most exciting aspect.
Shenzhen has all the feedback loops that traditionally every city around the world has it. But in case of this smart city, it’s happening at a greater speed, as per the architect.
As per Ratti, smart cities have the potential to create more valuable feedback loops as networks and exchange of information is an integral part of the urban system. He suggests doing this not by top-down planning but going for the bottom-up approach. Carlo Ratti along with researchers at the South China University of Technology and Politecnico di Torino is working on a proposal for a project called ‘Eyes of the City’.
Until now architecture has been responding to various sensors and mobile phones, but for the first time ‘Eyes of the City’ plans to develop an environment that identifies and responds to us on an individual level.
According to Ratti, China is an extremely interesting place to experiment as so they are planning to build a platform that supports the project and enables invited participants to work on it.
Shanghai On Becoming ‘International City of Excellence’
As experienced by Paul Shorthouse, Senior Director of Partnerships at Globe Series, Shanghai has innovative-thinking and is inspiring in many aspects.
As far as the advancement all over China is concerned, the country is shifting from being the ‘global factory’ to an innovative and clean economy backed by enhanced manufacturing and premium quality production powered by green and clean technologies.
Owing to a lot of initiatives going live in Shanghai, the city ranked among the top 10 smart cities of 2018-19. The city is already working on its third smart city strategic plan that aims to position its existence as ‘international city of excellence’ by 2040. At present, their focus is on addressing issues including rapidly increasing urban demographics, land and energy limitations, service delivery while encouraging inclusiveness and equitability for all the residents across the city.
In fact, Shanghai has made big strides with ‘Big Data Exchange’ idea that makes open data from sensors accessible by people through a broad range of useful public information platforms and dashboards, helping the city to make improvements that are essential for a good-quality life.
Three Key Elements To Note
Invest in the right direction of foundational infrastructure to bring high returns – Shanghai along with the Chinese government, in partnership with private firms and state-owned enterprises have been investing in the foundational infrastructure including ICT that is today serving as the backbone of smart cities. With the development accomplished, the city and the nation are receiving benefits via enhanced delivery of services, cost savings, and increased connected citizens.
Embrace innovation and collaboration to address 21st-century challenges – As discussed that Shanghai is facing land and energy limitations, increasing population and economic retardation. It is overcoming these challenges by embracing innovation and collaboration to rapidly discover solutions which are eventually contributing to smart city development.
Consider cross-border collaboration as a high priority – China is concentrating on cross-border collaboration and is enthusiastic in sharing its knowledge and learn from others. It also aims to develop cross-border mutually beneficial partnerships with organisation and governments across the globe.
Is China Obsessed With Surveillance Technology?
Recent reports show that China finances more on monitoring citizens than defending against external threats.
At the beginning of 2019, US Congressional Committee (USCC) charged a report on smart city development in China with an aim to clarify whether the country is smarter than the American equivalents. The report found that most of the resources used in Chinese smart city development have gone into enhancing surveillance of the citizens by the domestic security services.
This situation is more intense in the western region of Xinjiang where the predominantly Muslim minority society is monitored and strictly controlled. Besides cameras that are ubiquitous, citizens are required to download apps on their mobile devices to enable the authorities to track their movements and keep watch on their online presence. Content considered inappropriate by the Communist Party is not allowed to be viewed.
With this kind of surveillance in Xinjiang, there comes a converse picture where the technology is also used to improve the lives of the people. For instance, the cameras that capture license and driver face on all Chinese highways are connected to provide real-time traffic conditions in order to manage congestion.
A report from Deloitte reveals Chinese smart cities have not reached their goal to improve the lives of the citizens. Many developments are facing challenges like unclear strategic goals, insufficient technology implementation and poor execution models. However, the Deloitte report does not focus on the use of smart city technology to assist security system and secret police or surveillance which has been more successful in fulfilling the goals.
The report from USCC indicates that smart cities in China need to be aware of how and in what manner the technologies need to be used.
On the other hand, Carlo Ratti believes that unlike the western world, China is building a comprehensive surveillance system that combines digital and real-world lives of the people to award a credit score to an individual. Known as the “citizen score” this enables access to better internet service, fast-tracked visa to Europe and more.
Ratti also thinks that technology and surveillance need not go hand in hand. “It depends on how we use these technologies. That’s why we should have an open conversation about the type of cities we want.”
Architect Rem Koolhaas says that because of its “sense of superiority” towards China, Russia and the Arab world, the west is disregarding on critical conversations.
Hence, it is time that the west comes forward to have an open conversation over the global smart city concerns.