Feature Story

Could China’s cities outsmart the West?

by Sue Tabbitt

china iot

China might be behind the curve in embracing the Internet of Things, but its intentions are serious now and its megacities have a lot to gain from being better connected.

As Smart City projects continue to be rolled out around the world, a country to watch is China. Aggressive government ambitions - both for the national economy and its urban future - are expected to drive huge momentum around IoT there now. And when China puts its mind to something, results follow.

If ever a country needed Smart Cities (automatically coordinated and managed using vast networks of connected sensors, data analytics and intelligent controls), it is China. As its already dense population continues to drift towards cities for work, the challenges of congestion, pollution, transport scheduling, infrastructure management, and resource balancing will only intensify.

Research by the University of California estimates that around 1.6 million people in China die each year from heart, lung and stroke problems caused by polluted air. And city populations are growing. By 2030, China’s urban population (which has soared by 500 million over the last 30-35 years) could top a billion.

See also: Retrofitting smart cities

The number of ‘megacities’ (vast urban zones with populations exceeding 10 million) is multiplying fast too. The Government is planning for the capital, Beijing, to merge with neighboring towns and cities to form a colossal ‘super-megacity’ with a population of 130 million – that’s six times the size of New York City, and bigger than Japan. Yet Beijing (today home to more than 20 million) is already so renowned for traffic congestion that it is informally known as Shoudu (capital of traffic jams).

Environmentally and logistically, there is only one way these sprawling urban communities will be sustainable, and that’s down to how they are run day to day. The Internet of Things will be instrumental in tackling this.

Overtaking from behind

Analyst firm IDC declared earlier this year that the Asia-Pacific region, and China in particular, is now becoming the ‘frontline’ for IoT.

Relatively speaking, China is late to the IoT party but there are signs that it will catch up quickly now. Strategically, IoT is central to many of the Chinese government’s national initiatives. These include Made in China 2025, a vision for a new era in manufacturing in China – one that emphasizes quality and innovation, exploiting the latest technology. IoT (eg sensors monitoring and intelligently coordinating numerous aspects of production) will help deliver new efficiencies and quality control.

More than 500 Smart City projects are on the drawing board, and flagship pilot projects are shining a light on what’s possible. One of the early adopters, Zhenjiang in Jiangsu, between Shanghai and Nanjing, claims to have reduced its annual carbon footprint by 6,700 tons, saving ¥17 million ($2.7 million) in fuel costs, by using IoT to manage its infrastructure and resources. It’s also making life easier for residents and commuters who can access real-time updates on bus services, parking and public bike availability via their smartphones.

Yinchuan, in China’s northwestern Ningxia Hui region, has ambitions to become the country’s most advanced Smart City, and is already making strong headway with connected refuse containers and smarter water management among other initiatives.

Megacities, mega challenges

The larger the city, the greater the potential gains. The Beijing-centered mega-region, Jing-Jin-Ji (Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei), covers 82,000 square miles. New highways and bridges will provide the physical interconnections, allowing each constituent urban zone to draw on the complementary resources and strengths of the others. Keeping this hyper-connected conurbation moving will take a lot of coordination.

Other megacity projects are also underway. This visual story charts changes that are already taking place in Chongqing, China’s most populous municipality, situated in the Sichuan province in the south west of the country.

IBM Research warns that megacities need a smarter, more secure, resilient and self-healing nervous system if they are to work and be sustainable.

See Also: Focus: Smart connected communities

If air pollution is already an issue in China’s overcrowded cities, environmental conditions can only deteriorate further if transport and energy use increase. Cities need to combine emergency management with smarter government services, intelligently managed communications, transport and general infrastructure, energy and utilities, healthcare, and education. That means smart sensors across buildings, transport networks and services, linked to decision analytics to enable resource optimization, pre-emptive maintenance, process efficiency, automation and control.

Air pollution is a huge issue in China, and there are mandates on airborne particles in its citiesAir pollution is a huge issue in China, and there are mandates on airborne particles in its cities,” notes Sanjay Khatri, director of product development for M2M at Jasper, which provides an platform through which IoT applications can be coordinated and managed.

Connected applications achieve more

A few months ago Jasper formed a strategic partnership with mobile network operator China Unicom - the hope being that this will drive the creation of new connected applications and services, connected over China Unicom’s network and managed using Jasper’s platform.

Smart cities depend on a collection of applications, from traffic management to street lighting to environmental monitoring“Smart cities depend on a collection of applications, from traffic management to street lighting to environmental monitoring,” Khatri notes. “China already has a big installed base for cellular and end-to-end IoT connected devices, but until now these have been unmanaged,” he explains. “It’s been a case of putting a SIM card in a machine to make a connection. What we’re bringing is a platform to manage the connected devices: that’s the new frontier for IoT and M2M in China. It’s only been a few months since the launch of our partnership with China Unicom and we’re already seeing tremendous demand for developer kits.”

Smart metering, stronger surveillance

Smart metering is expected to be a massive area. The Jasper-China Unicom partnership will also target automotive, transportation and logistics (eg fleet management), where the market potential is vast and the scope for transformation significant.

Other opportunities include connected, next-generation vending machines and smart lockers, for example in high-rise/multi-tenant buildings. “We’re seeing a lot of entrepreneurial effort here, for example relating to hot food and laundry,” Khatri says. “Then there are the Uber-like services.”

Surveillance is another big area. Kirk Wilson, executive director of the China-Britain Business Council, points to the use of connected CCTV technology from Scottish company IndigoVision at China’s airports (the smart video surveillance systems are also used throughout the Chinese province of Yunnan for urban monitoring and traffic management). “The control aspect is a distinct interest for China,” Wilson says.

Growing China’s IoT software pool

Where possible, China is keen to use its own technology. But historically, while China has been a great powerhouse in manufacturing hardware, it has traditionally lacked the software skills. That too is changing though. Says Masanari Arai, founder and CEO of Kii, a Japanese IoT cloud platform provider with offices in Shanghai, “Currently 90% of the starts up in Silicon Valley are software based, compared with 30% in China, but that ratio will shift. People are coming from Silicon Valley to advise how developing algorithms and software on top of hardware and devices can increase a company’s value.”

Like Jasper, Kii provides a platform to make that easier for companies in the context of IoT. As well as partnering with a mobile provider (in its case China Telecom), Kii has formed links with Chinese e-commerce giant, Alibaba. It operates a cloud service (Aliyun), similar to Amazon’s AWS.

There is no Google Play available in China, yet IoT end user solutions require a mobile application, so this kind of distribution partnership will be important.

Alibaba has deployed the Kii cloud on top of its Aliyun cloud service. The idea is to pave the way for IoT-specific solutions to run on the hardware being produced by manufacturers in China, as well as numerous electronics start-ups and tech firms in Taiwan. Kii has also established partnerships with local app stores.

“The distribution of mobile applications is not easy in China; you have to deal with the right local app store – and there are more than 200 today each with their own different areas of focus, software development kits, rules and approval processes,” Arai explains. Bringing in solutions from other countries is almost impossible, he notes. “China has a ‘Great Firewall’. If someone wants to create an IoT solution, they have to have a cloud platform in China. I see so many Silicon Valley companies having a tough time trying to deploy services in China because of this. The Internet in China is very closed – there is no Facebook, no Twitter, no Google.”

Connected living, better health

As IoT platforms smooth the process of delivering and co-ordinating applications, Kii sees great potential across a wide spectrum of scenarios. “China is very aggressively rolling out IoT solutions to the consumer,” Arai says. “For example, if you check into a 4-5 star hotel in China, inside the room it is totally IoT.  Use cases are still not that strong from the end user point of view, but this will change as the IoT market is so aggressive.”

Kii is also working with a number of device manufacturers in China, such as LED lighting manufacturer Yankon. The two companies recently announced the launch of next-generation IoT smart lighting solutions for homes and offices. The products, which can be accessed and controlled through a smartphone, address demand for low cost, convenient energy-efficient lighting.

Beyond city infrastructure projects, strong opportunities will emerge in healthcare and health management, Arai believes. Obesity is a growing problem and China has over 100 million people with diabetes, he says. The connected home has great potential.

Jasper’s Khatri agrees. “Applications for assisted living and remote wellness management have great appeal in China, especially with the one-child policy and the urban migration of workers, leaving behind ageing parents. Quirkier opportunities include people tracking and bicycle tracking – there is a lot of interest here,” he says.

Internet partnerships prove critical

Getting apps to consumers once they’re ready won’t be difficult, as mobile penetration is high in China and between them China’s Internet giants Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent have enormous user bases and direct billing relationships. “This is a very important part of the IoT service model,” Kii’s Arai notes.

Tencent’s WeChat mobile messaging and calling app already forms the basis of some impressive creativity. “Everyone uses it as a communications platform, but it has about 20 other functions – you can use it to track and hail a taxi, and to make payments,” says CBBC’s Wilson.

Alibaba and rival e-commerce giant JD.Com meanwhile are building out vast logistics networks to expand their reach into China’s rural communities. These are becoming increasingly important economically, and are coming online at an accelerating rate via affordable mobiles.

Data sharing

A huge part of the opportunity is not just the sales and deliveries, but the huge volumes of data the two companies are amassing through all of their connections with merchants and consumers. “Alibaba defines itself as a data company first and foremost,” Wilson says.  The greater the connections, the more complete the data.

These data assets could be extremely valuable, as one of the greatest potential barriers to progress in China in a Smart Cities context is access to data. “In China, only local authorities can collect data - and they don’t like sharing it,” Wilson explains. “They also like to develop bespoke solutions, which become un-shareable, creating a further hurdle.”

This may need to change if China is to realize IoT’s full potential, especially to transform the way its cities are run. “The UK could help here, by showing the way on standards,” Wilson says. “We’ve put a lot of work into aligning regulations and addressing privacy over the last 15 years so that, where appropriate, public data can be shared to solve problems.”


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