Smart City Dreams of China Tech
One thing that brings most global tech companies together regardless of their claimed area of expertise is that they are all in the business of data. That Google, Facebook and Amazon know everything about us comes as no surprise given their all-encompassing businesses, but in China, even the seemingly niche companies find innovative ways to mine user data and use it for fulfilling their futuristic fixations and not least making oodles of money.
Didi Chuxing, Meituan-Dianping, Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and Xiaomi all have ascendancy over different sectors of Chinese tech. Didi dominates mobility; Meituan is the king of food delivery; Alibaba owns e-commerce and has stakes in a plethora of Chinese and foreign upstarts; Tencent does social media, gaming and excessive investing; Baidu rules search and aspires to lead the AI race; while Huawei churns out smartphones and telecom infrastructure. While extremely different in direction and ethos, somehow these companies all have a common dream of putting their massive databases, compiled in extremely divergent ways, to use in smart cities.
Smart cities and smart transportation are what Chinese tech giants have been obsessed with since AI, 5G and IoT turned from hackneyed buzzwords to everyday reality. The technological expenditure on smart cities has been on the rise for the past several years, and is expected to reach over $38 billion by 2023. Reasons underlaying the tech giants’ eagerness to experiment are manifold, from establishing a good rapport with the government, to using cities as a training ground for their AI algorithms, while creating more use cases for their products, and simply improving our living environment (at least that’s what we chose to believe in). However, their efforts, no matter how seemingly benevolent, have at times been rather contentious. To give just one example, Alibaba-backed AI powerhouses SenseTime and Megvii are incessantly bashed by foreign politicians for cooperating with the Chinese government in facial recognition and surveillance tech.
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The public is also growing wary of the influence tech companies have over their lives, but the common consensus is that it is a win-win game where ceding access to personal data yields a return in a form of a safer and more convenient living environment. How safe and how convenient is still unknown, but all the privacy concerns aside, the visions China’s tech stars have for their smart city projects are remarkable to say the least.
Didi is the incontestable champion of ride-hailing in China with stakes in several similar businesses abroad like the Brazilian app 99 (acquired in 2018), and the South-East Asian super-app Grab. The company also operates a fleet of shared bikes and aspires to excel in autonomous driving.
With scores of data accumulated from everyday operations, cloud computing capabilities and expertise in machine learning, Didi now works on generating brain-like inferences, accurate forecasting and intelligent scheduling algorithms to optimize traffic management systems in Chinese cities. The ride-hailing giant calls this Smart Transportation Brain.
As of the first half of 2019, DiDi’s Smart Transportation Brain was deployed in over 20 cities, including Jinan, Guiyang, Tianjin, and Shenzhen. The company currently concentrates on smart traffic lights and smart traffic screens to manage traffic flow. DiDi already covers over 2,000 traffic lights throughout China, reducing local congestion by an average of 10-20%, according to internal company data. As for the screens, they are capable of displaying the real-time situation on roads, and use DiDi’s ETA technology to reliably predict arrival time at certain destinations.
Particularly interesting in this respect is the case of Jinan, capital of China’s Shandong province and one of China’s most congested cities.
“In Jinan, the deployment of smart signals significantly improved transportation efficiency. With 344 intersections optimized, the system has saved citizens in Jinan more than 30,000 commuting hours every day. By reducing vehicle idle time, slow-driving, and start/stop times, carbon emissions have been cut significantly. One calculation shows in one year in Jinan that 44,000 fewer tons of carbon dioxide have been emitted,” said Didi’s spokesperson.
Didi does not shun experimenting on foreign terrain either, establishing a partnership with the São Paulo City Hall on a road safety project through its Brazilian subsidiary 99. The company prepared a study based on anonymous and aggregated data about cab rides during party hours on weekends (late night and early morning), helping public managers to optimize control actions in streets to avoid accidents. 99 has also been involved in optimizing bus lines in São José dos Campos and collaborating with Rio de Janeiro’s metro company to create a multimodal transportation solution during the Rio Carnival.
Back in China, Didi also hooked its app with the national railway booking system “12306” and has recently begun testing an AR navigation tool for airports to help users find their way to Didi pick-up stations.
Launched in 2016, Alibaba’s ET City Brain project is comparable to Didi’s Smart Transportation Brain in scope and method. It’s a comprehensive traffic management system powered by Big Data collected by Alibaba through the plethora of channels that the company owns and partly sourced from traffic bureaus.
The primary testing ground for the project has been Alibaba’s home-base, Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province. Among City Brain’s most notable achievements was taking Hangzhou from 5th to 57th place in the list of China’s most congested cities by tracking all vehicle movements, controlling traffic lights, and detecting accidents and illegally parked vehicles. Suzhou and Shanghai have also welcomed slightly toned down experiments from Alibaba to optimize bus routes and analyze urban infrastructure.
Apart from modernizing their home city, Alibaba also took the project overseas to Kuala Lumpur. The Malaysian leg of City Brain, managed from Alibaba Cloud’s international headquarters in Singapore is slated for completion in 2020, which will make Kuala Lumpur the first city to adopt the technology outside of China. To expand its outreach and research markets outside China, Alibaba has also established a joint lab with Singapore’s Nanyang Technology University, where ,among other things, special attention will be paid to issues of urban planning.
City Brain is essentially a collection of products responsible for different sides of the project’s overall operations. City Visual Intelligence Engine processes images and video to analyze the cities from the visual perspective. Tianqing is a “large-scale visual computing platform，which consists of three components: a video access system, a real-time/offline computing system, and a visual search system, providing a comprehensive large-scale visual computing solution,” according to the website of Alibaba’s DOMO academy. Tianyao is a smart traffic patrol alarm tracking road accidents. Tianji forecasts traffic flow through the analysis of historical and real-time video data. Tianying is a video search engine that can pinpoint specific objects on videos, including people. Tianjing is an urban management system designed to aid municipal governments.
Baidu’s foray into AI and autonomous driving could not transpire without a detour into smart city infrastructure. In 2018, China’s search czar signed a cooperation memorandum with the government of Beijing’s Haidian district, where the company’s headquarters are located, to build the “city brain” of the district. The Haidian authorities opened access to government data resources for Baidu to do their AI magic and accelerate innovation. To this day, Haidian might be the only place in Beijing where you could spot a driverless bus transporting real passengers.
The tech patrons of Haidian are not entirely self-reliant in their endeavor, spending a fair share of their budget on investment and acquisitions. In September 2019, Baidu injected 1.44 billion yuan (US$202 million) into an AI start-up Neusoft Holdings in part hoping that their expertise could complement their efforts in smart city tech. “Neusoft is an industry leader in … smart cities … and AI cloud for hospitals and the education sector,” said the company’s official statement released shortly after the transaction went through.
One of Baidu’s immediate goals is building a cloud computing centre in Hebei province to support its ambitions in Xiong’an New Area, a formidable smart city and special economic zone project personally endorsed by President Xi Jinping. The tech giant has already tested its self-driving cars in the city in 2017, prompting heaps of media coverage, predicting that Xiong’an will be the city of the future administered by AI and free of traffic issues.
Tencent’s approach to smart cities is different from its tech peers. While Didi, Alibaba and Baidu care more about roads and city management, Tencent has committed to digitizing transport. The company is already ramping up efforts to spread its QR code transport pass technology in the country. QR codes can already be used in a number of big cities including Beijing and Shenzhen.
The Shenzhen MTR has even gone as far as to launch China’s first blockchain-based electronic invoice system, powered by Tencent’s technology. Passengers using WeChat QR codes as subway passes will now be able to request electronic blockchain-based receipts through the app.
Another major milestone on the way to establishing itself as a serious force in the smart city game was the China Smart Transportation Conference jointly held by Tencent and China Communication News in Beijing in October 2018. During the conference, Tencent introduced several smart transportation products and signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Shenzhen Airlines to bring users a new digital flight experience. The partnership is mainly based around a co-developed app allowing the use of QR codes for security checks and boarding.
“Transportation is a very important area for Tencent’s exploration in the industrial internet. We hope we can utilize our technological achievements from the past two decades to become a digital assistant to the public transportation industry,” Said Zheng Haojian, Vice President of Tencent during the event.
He also pointed out that Tencent had developed a so-called ‘0-1-3-5-7’ smart transport model. Here is how it breaks down: 0 kilometers – “unconscious” payment for parking fees; 1 kilometer – scan-to-go service for shared bikes; 3 kilometers – Tencent QR code payment service for buses; 5 kilometers – car hailing service of DiDi; 7 kilometers – Tencent QR code payment service for subways. On the intercity level, WeChat’s access to the 12306 national railroad booking system is another notable achievement for Tencent.
While Meituan’s efforts on the smart city front have been considerably more lowkey, the company’s dedication to the cause is paramount, so much so that it has even been engraved in the company description section of their official website.
“Meituan is striving to become a socially-responsible enterprise, with the goal to build smart cities and create a better life for people through the in-depth cooperation with government organizations, colleges and universities and research institutes, mainstream media, non-profit organizations and ecosystem partners,” says the bit.
To this end, in 2018 Meituan officially established a Science and Technology Association, joining efforts with the relevant departments of Tsinghua University, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications and other higher education institutions. The delivery champion also united with Chinese government-affiliated and private think tanks including the Beijing Enterprise Technology Research Association and Tencent Research Institute, forging an alliance baptized the “Smart City Innovation Community”.
While Meituan has all the potential to leverage its data heavy business model to challenge its direct competitors in the field of smart urban infrastructure like Didi, overall the company has chosen a more laid-back approach. The company infuses a fair share of its budget in R&D to develop AI algorithms helping their delivery guys to efficiently navigate through cities. There is a chance, one day that technology could spread outside the delivery circles ad become available to everyone. Sadly, now it is not.
The closest we get so far to seeing Meituan’s technology applied on a broader scale to develop smart transportation solutions is its collaboration with the Baidu-backed EV manufacturer WM Motor. The carmaker’s first release, the EX5, comes equipped with Meituan’s ride-hailing platform. “In return, WM Motor will get access to Meituan Dache’s platform, including data, interconnectivity and operational capabilities, marrying the low frequency new retail experience with high frequency daily travel scenarios,” says the WM Motor’s official statement.
China’s telecoms luminary launched an onrush to dominance in smart city development by establishing in 2018 a full smart city platform with the aim of creating an operating system for smart cities. The platform’s services include everything from complex big data analytics to smart parking solutions, IoT connectivity and other intelligent technologies.
Huawei’s tech helps save flyers 15% of their time at Shenzhen Airport by reducing the need for manual passenger identification through big data analytics and facial recognition. In Weifang, a city in Shandong province, Huawei reconstructed more than 40, 000 streetlights based on NB-IoT, improving the O&M efficiency by 45%, increasing the lighting rate by 25%, and reducing the annual electricity consumption by 6.8 million kWh.
The core strategy of Huawei’s smart city construction is “1+1+N”, which stands for “1 digital platform + 1 AI brain + N applications”. Due to the wide variety of the telecom equipment produced by the company, Huawei has already, to varying degrees, participated in 160 smart city construction projects led by different enterprises in 100 different countries. In 2017 alone, Huawei participated in the construction of 48 smart city projects in Beijing, Shenzhen, Dunhuang, Weifang and Yiyang. In 2019, Huawei and Tencent jointly won a big order of 520 million yuan to take charge of the smart city project in Changsha.
In a conversation with Fox Business, Huawei Vice President Joh Kelly also underscored the role of 5G – which Huawei pioneered – in the development of smart cities. The executive predicted that 5G infrastructure will be integral to the evolution of IoT and will revolutionize our everyday lives by, for example, allowing us to track our kids via electric sensors on their backpacks and pre-select parking spaces before arriving at a local shopping mall. He also noted that 5G is going to disrupt manufacturing as we know it through next level intelligent automation. If the revolution does happen anytime soon, Huawei has already positioned itself at the forefront of the movement.