The concept of smart cities has been developed since around 2008. This is when underlying technologies such as RFID sensors, wireless connectivity, electronic payments, and cloud-based software services could be used to develop new city solutions using data collection. The concept was widely developed by global tech companies such as IBM. Since then, the smart city concept has been widely accepted by many countries, including China.

When a city collects data using connected devices and sensors to improve efficiency and reduce waste, this is called a smart city. The data is interpreted using AI. The goal of a smart city is to improve the quality of life in the city by reducing a variety of factors. Some examples are reducing traffic congestion, crime and carbon emissions. These goals can be reached by using certain AI systems to control traffic flow and energy management.

An example of a city that successfully implements such systems is Yinchuan, China. Residents can take buses that use facial recognition to charge for rides, or make use of intelligent lockers in several neighbourhoods to accept package deliveries when they are not home, while the city’s connected garbage bins alert authorities when they need emptying.

Despite the aforementioned benefits of smart cities, the most visible elements are increased surveillance. Chongqing, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Tianjin and Ji’nan are the cities ranked in the top five when it comes to the highest concentration of CCTV cameras.  By 2022, China aims to have one public CCTV camera for every two citizens.

Such a large concentration of CCTV creates unease with critics, claiming they are a marketing gimmick to impose more surveillance. However, it also brings a lot of benefits with it. Combined with its facial recognition capabilities, China has had several successes in identifying and tracking high profile criminals. Facial recognition technology has also been used in a wide range of implementations. Some examples are payment systems, safeguarding entrance to workplaces, schools and apartment buildings.

CCTV cameras. Source: Andrey Belenko

The surveillance structure currently in place can serve other functions alongside tracking people. Huawei claims one of their systems in the city of Nanjing is used to deploy electrical workers and doctors where their services are needed.

The City Brain project by Alibaba in Hangzhou is one of the better known smart city projects in China. The AI system uses data from traffic cameras in the city to coordinate road signals. The system can manage traffic flow and reduce traffic congestions. The project started in 2016. One year later, Hangzhou’s ranking on the list of China’s most congested cities dropped from among the top three to 48th place.

Another function of City Brain is that it controls traffic lights to help first responders reach an emergency site in half the time it took before the system was implemented. With the traffic management project deemed a success, the scope of City Brain has been expanded. The system now covers 11 major areas of city life, including transportation, urban government, cultural tourism, and health, and has been adopted by 23 cities across China.

Distribution of cities where Alibaba Cloud City Brain has been implemented

Source: Alibaba Cloud

Alibaba is not the only Chinese company to invest heavily in smart city solutions. On November 18, Huawei launched its own dedicated smart city platform. The company states its technology is used in more than 160 cities spread among 40 countries.

The principle that everything will be connected to the internet using 5G networks is called the Internet of Things (IoT). Its inevitable rollout will increase the tempo in which smart city projects are conceived. Eventually, smart cities will manage more aspects of life. Energy distribution, manufacturing, public services and entertainment services will all be controlled by AI-driven systems.

While tech companies, authorities and city planners are praising the advantages of smart city projects, it is also important to explore the possible negative implications of the systems. Critics are warning that many citizens are unaware of the potential impact that China’s data collection systems might have on their personal privacy. Questions have been raised whether smart cities are mainly designed for surveillance and management of their inhabitants.

One thing is for sure, smart cities are here to stay. Many western cities are also implementing technologies to make their city smarter. A front runner in smart city technology in the west is London. The city has launched a set of initiatives called Smarter London Together. These initiatives aim to make London “the smartest city in the world”. The project promotes user-centred design, data sharing, connectivity, and collaboration between public services and the private sector.  

The ultimate goal of smart cities is to improve the quality of life. To reach this goal data needs to be collected using connected devices. Doing this as effectively as possible whilst maintaining privacy for citizens is a challenge. Regulations will have to be implemented in any country utilizing smart city technology to protect its citizens. Whether this will be done appropriately and swift enough to keep up with technological improvements is to be seen.