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City on the edge of Gobi Desert is China’s smartest

Lying on the western end of the Great Wall, the capital of Ningxia autonomous region is ZTE’s showcase of a smart city, an industry segment that may grow to US$1.6 trillion by 2020, according to Frost & Sullivan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 May, 2017, 9:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 May, 2017, 8:30am

China may eventually bridge the “last mile” to becoming the world’s largest economy on the back of the hundreds of so-called smart cities now being established across the country.

At the end of March, it was estimated that more than 500 mainland cities, including 95 per cent of provincial capitals and 83 per cent of designated prefecture-level cities, were set to be transformed into smart cities.

The size of this initiative is likely to dwarf any similar undertaking around the world.

Leading this ambitious effort is the city of Yinchuan (銀川), a community of two million people on the western end of the Great Wall of China near the Gobi Desert in Ningxia.

This is a community of mostly Hui ethnic community, as unlikely a place as any for a smart-city experiment.

Smart cities are loosely defined are those that have deployed information and communications technologies across various functional public-sector areas, including transport, energy, governance, security and safety, according to research firm and consultancy IHS Markit.

It said the key drivers behind the launch of smart-city projects around the world were increased population growth in urban centres, demand for energy efficiency, intercity competition for investments, municipal cost reductions and efforts to improve citizens’ quality of life.

The projects also represent huge business as Frost & Sullivan has forecast the global market for smart-city products and services will reach US$1.6 trillion by 2020.

Yinchuan was not expected to be highlighted as quite such a model city at the beginning, but the local government was pushing hard for recognition as it tried to integrate smart initiatives instead of some simple “Safe City” models commonly adopted in most cities.

The Smart Yinchuan project identified five major components to improve the lives of residents: tackling congestion in transportation, environmental degradation, crime and public security, inefficient local government services and enhancing access to health services.

China’s smart-city projects alone are estimated to offer US$10 billion worth of business opportunities each year, according to Lian Yuxi, the deputy general manager at ZTE Corp’s smart-city division.

Shenzhen-based ZTE, China’s largest listed telecommunications equipment supplier, forged an agreement with the Yinchuan government in June 2014 to develop its smart-city systems.

The technology giant’s sweeping digital transformation plan for Yinchuan covers 10 systems and 13 modules, including 4G networks, smart transportation and data-sharing between government departments, which could serve as a blueprint for hundreds of mainland cities to stimulate economic growth by supporting business development and attracting fresh investments and even new residents.

A visit to Yinchuan in February last year prompted Premier Li Keqiang to call on other mainland cities to observe and adopt its approach to smart development.

Before Yinchuan was put under that intense national spotlight, 65-year-old retiree You Yulan made the move to a residential complex there known as “Future City” in May 2015.

“I feel very happy to live here,” You told the South China Morning Post. “I sold another apartment to move here just for its intelligent facilities.”

You said she relocated from another part of Yinchuan after buying a 92-square-metre flat at Future City, where 2,800 households reside, for about 500,000 yuan (US$72,500).

The price You paid was slightly higher than the average cost of flats in Yinchuan at that time, but she said it was well worth it for her new community’s intelligent amenities. Her three younger siblings

have also moved to the same neighbourhood.

At Future City, You rents a wearable device the size of a regular mobile phone to help check her blood pressure, blood sugar levels and other vital signs. She can instantly see the results through an app on her smartphone.

When the results show an abnormal state, You receives a phone call from a doctor she has never met, who then suggests a further check-up at a nearby hospital.

The health data of Future City residents who use the kit are stored on an online platform and shared with authorised medical institutions as reference whenever users go for a medical check-up.

Those represent the basic elements of Yinchuan’s “Smart Health” initiative, which has yet to be rolled out in other communities of the city.

By paying 200 yuan annually, residents at Future City can secure the services of an online doctor to review self-administered health check results and offer prognosis. The community also has a medical room to provide basic health check services.

Guo Baichun, the vice-mayor at Yinchuan, said the number of smart communities like Future City would be expanded to 500 around Yinchuan by the end of this year, up from 20 at present. The city’s smart initiatives will eventually cover all of its 1,919 communities.

Apart from health care, residents would also have access to free Wi-fi hot spots as well as connected applications like waste management and grocery delivery services, according to Guo.

Entrances to communities like Future City are equipped with a face recognition system, so building doors automatically open to registered residents. Police are alerted when wanted persons are detected by the system.

Powered garbage bins in these communities open when people are close by to throw their rubbish. These can compress waste to fit more garbage and are equipped with SIM cards to notify cleaners when it is full and suggest the best routes when several bins need to be emptied.

Thanks to data-sharing between local government agencies, the time to obtain a business licence in Yinchuan has been reduced to a day from 25 days before. An applicant need only file one online application, which will be processed by four government departments in one working day.

ZTE, which provides smart-city solutions in more than 160 cities worldwide, said Yinchuan’s highly advanced metropolitan information system and telecommunication network allowed for so-called big data analytics and internet-of-things technology to be implemented for the public’s benefit.

Yinchuan’s smart-city systems and all the information processed are stored and managed in a data centre operated by ZTE and the municipal government.

A data centre is a secure facility built to house large-capacity servers and data storage systems and equipped with multiple power sources and high-bandwidth internet connections.

To meet growing user demand, the capacity of Yinchuan’s data centre will be expanded to house 100,000 servers later this year.

“Yinchuan is one of the very few [smart] cities to adopt a ‘top-level design’ to lay out its plan for the entire city,” Lian said.

“Yinchuan serves as a model for other smart-city projects. It has demonstrated how new technologies can help local governments deliver improved services to residents.”

Forward-looking regulations have also been passed by Yinchuan to safeguard all the information it collects and shares under its smart-city initiative.

“In the information society, people need to provide certain personal information to avail of services, just like when one provides a correspondence address to enjoy e-commerce services,” Guo said.

He pointed out that there was no data privacy issue so long as the information was managed by the city’s Big Data Bureau.

“Most smart cities in China are not really that smart,” he added. “Some cities develop it in concept or in PowerPoint form. Some only share data and deploy information for public security.”

The development of smart cities across the country has also proved difficult because of issues mainly related to financing, operations and maintenance.

The Yinchuan government has adopted a public-private partnership model in which several state-owned enterprises and ZTE set up a joint venture to invest and take charge of the smart-city initiatives.

In return, the Yinchuan government has committed to spend 300 million yuan annually on information technology services for a 50-year period, according to Guo.

Wu Lianfeng, a vice-president at IDC China, said many local governments has been hesitant to pursue smart-city developments because “there is no viable business model yet for certain livelihood-related smart facilities, which basically consume investment without providing any returns”.

While Singapore as well as cities in Japan and South Korea are pushing forward with their smart-city plans, Wu said Chinese cities like Yinchuan were currently the front runners in the deployment of advanced information technology infrastructure to support smart-city developments.