On the last day of May, I boarded a 13-hour flight to Beijing, not completely certain about what to expect over the next month. This was the beginning of my Zhi-Xing Eisenhower Fellowship. Over the next 28 days, I would travel to seven cities, meet with more than 100 people, and become fully immersed in a different culture.
Eisenhower Fellowships is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that brings together leaders through an international fellowship experience, creating a global network of people committed to working toward a peaceful world that is also prosperous and just. Each selected fellow has a primary focus area while abroad, and mine was to explore the ecosystem around smart cities and gov tech in China.
The Zhi-Xing Fellowship was a collaboration between Eisenhower Fellowships and the China Education Association for International Exchange (CEAIE), an organization that was pivotal to my on-the-ground support while in China. To get the full picture around the gov tech and smart cities ecosystem, CEAIE coordinated meetings with government, academia, private and state-owned companies, venture capitalists, and nonprofit firms from around the country. Here are some of my initial learnings:
China’s planning process provides interconnectivity and shared purpose
China’s five-year planning process is utilized to coordinate initiatives within government agencies, and is not just focused on technology. Since 1953, five-year plans have been issued to plan economic and social initiatives throughout the country tied to specific measurable outcomes. China is currently on its 13th five-year plan, which you can read more about in a report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
Each of the five-year plans created at the national level serves as a guidepost for cities, but not necessarily an established direction. Each city and province is responsible for creating its own five-year plan, but they have some autonomy in specific areas of focus. But it was evident that local agencies that align their five-year plan directly to the national plan will have better financing or funding options for accomplishing their targets.
Each five-year plan has binding and expected targets. These quantifiable targets ensure that agencies are evaluating metrics for success. Binding targets are quotas that must be achieved, and expected targets are those representing desired or preferred outcomes. Performance measurement in the U.S. has been gaining significant traction, but I feel there is much that can be learned from the way China benchmarks success. They opt for quantifiable metrics, such as GDP (on which each city has a binding target), instead of relying on qualitative goals.
A scannable barcode in Beijing lets residents leave feedback for or ask questions of the State Council using their mobile phones.
China’s smart city rollouts are similar to those in the U.S.
China has well over 500 active smart city pilots throughout the country, and much of their approach mirrors what can be seen in the United States. Three key points struck me about smart city development in China.
Whether originated by a government agency or a university, almost all smart city initiatives begin as pilots before being scaled to other cities or regions. Some of these pilots are even focused on a neighborhood or sub-district level.
Second, many smart city technology rollouts are verticalized within key focus areas, such as transportation. The other common areas of focus were transactional, such as financial and tourism use cases, for example, and public safety. Each of these verticals is also growing significantly within the U.S. market. Last, the private-sector, joint ventures and state-owned enterprises play an increasingly important role in the development and commercialization of new technologies in the market.
And even with vastly different political structures, their challenges with smart city rollouts are similar to those faced in the United States. The lack of a universal definition of a smart city, resistance to data sharing at the department or agency level, the pace of technological change and prohibitive regulations were repeatedly cited as obstacles to progress by Chinese officials.
In Hanzhou, a representative of Alibaba provides an overview of their City Brain project, which connects real-time data with AI for smart city use cases, like intelligent traffic lights.
China is still developing, but at a much larger scale
Both the private sector and government agencies made it clear that China is still a developing country. From a foreign perspective, it is easy to be detached from the reality and pace of development since China opened up, but China’s smart city and gov tech markets are growing at almost seven times what we see in the United States year-over-year. In addition to its rapid growth rate, it’s developing on a large scale. With a population of 1.4 billion people, most rural cities in China would be considered mega-cities in the United States.
The use of emerging technologies has much in common with the United States
- One of the most important parts of my fellowship involved looking at the physical or planned rollouts of emerging technologies in the seven cities I visited. Although this isn’t a full representation of China’s adoption of emerging technologies, following are a few observations.
- 5G is a national priority with an expected full-scale national rollout by the end of 2020. Many new cellular devices already have 5G chipsets embedded.
- Artificial intelligence is largely driven by the private-sector and state-owned enterprises. AI has been primarily applied to public safety, tourism and manufacturing verticals. There are also numerous examples of natural language processing in chatbots and other voice/text services incorporated into applications and third-party experiences.
- Blockchain is primarily used by financial technology (fintech) firms for decentralized payment infrastructure and micro-and-peer lending.
- Mobile adoption is 120 to 150 percent depending on where you are in China, and phones are a primary mechanism for digital and physical payment through third-party applications like AliPay and WeChat.
- Big data and overall data analysis is a significant focus area for many agencies and companies in China. Agencies have struggled with analysis of data through on-premise infrastructure but are starting to work on data structures that will make big data a foundation for artificial intelligence.
- IoT is the most widely adopted emerging technology visible throughout China. From cameras to sensors on light poles, much of the public infrastructure in China has an Internet connection and is leveraged to enable intelligent use cases.
- Low Earth orbit: China’s private-sector space industry is in its early stages, but numerous organizations validated that low Earth orbit could be the next big platform for smart cities applications. China’s space agency, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp., successfully deployed a low Earth orbit satellite in December of 2018 and is also working to catalyze private-sector space enterprises.
China is using third-party platforms to reach citizens where they are
Government agencies are commonly using third-party applications to reach the population where they are — instead of building infrastructure and expecting users to find it and use it. For example, WeChat, a popular messaging application developed by Tencent, now has over a billion users that use it for social updates, payments and messaging. Many cities throughout China have built mini-programs within WeChat to connect with their residents in a way that doesn’t require that they leave the application. In the United States, we are seeing the rise of many similar third-party platforms like Amazon’s Alexa; however, the pace of adoption by government agencies is limited. In China, third-party platforms are not just experiments; they are the primary interaction points with end users.
The Ministry of Public Security in Beijing.
China is open for collaboration on smart cities and emerging technologies
China is currently collaborating with many international institutions, such as the International Organization for Standardization, on standards for smart cities and gov tech, but there are limited direct collaborations with non-academic institutions in the United States. Numerous organizations that I met with were excited about the opportunity to work peer-to-peer with cities in the U.S. Some areas of significant interest relate to the ethics of emerging technologies, use cases for emerging technologies (i.e., AI, blockchain, IoT, etc.), standards related to cybersecurity, and new models for technology, economic development and innovation in the public sector.
My journey to China was a life-changing experience, providing me an international perspective on technology’s role in government-citizen interactions. In the months to come, I will write a series of articles and an industry report on smart cities and gov tech in China. Although our countries may be on different ends of the political spectrum, my time in China gave me renewed hope that together we can create systems that unlock new possibilities for government agencies and the citizens we serve — regardless of politics, language or geographical boundaries.
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