How China’s smart-city tech focuses on its own citizens

How China’s smart-city tech focuses on its own citizens (FT)

  • Smart cities are highly digitally connected and can include elements such as intelligent lighting, smart traffic management, and smart power grids – i.e. innovations that are generally focused on improving the city’s inhabitants lives.
  • As c. 500 of the 1,000 smart cities being built globally are located in China (its five-year plan expects public and private investment of c. USD74bn by 2020), not much is actually known about the benefits of these on-going projects.
  • However, a report commissioned by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission’ (USCC) found that instead of including features that would improve peoples’ lives the bulk of smart city investments seemed to be focused on improving surveillance of Chinese citizens.
  • This included vast networks of cameras, facial and gait recognition, AI and cloud computing to identify and track citizens, as well as mandatory tracking & monitoring phone applications that most citizens are required to download.

Analysis and Comments

  • Ignoring for a moment the debate around privacy – this report highlights a point. While the high-level statistics often show strong trends, when you dig down into the data you find that the advancement of a particular technology is sometimes not as pervasive (or positive) as the headlines can suggest.
  • Clearly the surveillance technology used in many Chinese Smart Cities can also have more constructive uses. For instance, number plate & facial recognition systems can be used to manage traffic flows and to allow real time changes in traffic lights etc.
  • Similar systems could be used to enhance public transport systems and to help in planning new infrastructure (by allowing a better understanding of existing journeys – in a very granular fashion, something that we struggle with presently).
  • From an investment perspective, something to watch is the rise of the Chinese manufacturers, as they move into export markets that have historically been the domain of Western tech giants (remembering of course the Huawei debate).

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