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Why China’s Smart Cities need to be Green Cities

By Bettina Tratz-Ryan | May 21, 2014 | 0 Comments

In my recent business travel to China I have come to meet the country’s growing ecological drive and awareness. China is known globally for its bad air and water pollution in cities. According to the recent report of China’s environmental development by the Environmental Protection Agency and Social Science Academic Press, Beijing registered in 2013 138 days of haze pollution. The agency reported that by now, 38 cities in China have an official emergency response process for haze pollution in place, ready to execute.  Measures include shutting down pollution generating factories during this time, temporary traffic restrictions and primary and middle school suspensions.

Metrics to measure haze pollution are available but need adjustment by city. The main indicator of haze is in terms of PM2.5 particles with diameter of less than 2.5 microns and for haze pollution of above 75 micrograms per cubic meter and visibility of less than 5 km for more than 6 hours as a result of the particles in the air. However China Meteorological Administration maintains that adding sand storm, precipitation and dust, it will actually change those metrics due to changes in visibility. Therefore, transparency of metric generation is absolutely key to deliver a sustained message about environmental challenges to people. Lack of understanding and trust can become an obstacle for the local government’s efforts to build infrastructure to manage environmental issues. During my visit, the construction of a garbage waste incineration plant in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province sparked public outcry as the benefits and the impact of that plants were not clearly communicated. Transparency in the decision making as well as in the benefit and risk assessment have to be improved which is a similar issue found in many other countries and cities.

In the meantime, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Development and Reform Commission as well as the National Bureau of statistics forecast that by 2015, China’s environmental protection industry product market will reach $91 billion or 570 billion Yuan. 80 percent of those sales in 2011 already were for airborne or water pollution management. Environmental monitoring products are taking the third largest share with around 9 percent.  This means that the increasing official and local recognition of environmental issues and the policies to curb those will drive technology innovation and business opportunity forward. This is actually a growth market opportunity for China’s industry.

I asked Celine Xu, a Gartner associate living and working in Beijing, about how people actually manage the environmental challenges on a daily basis. She mentioned that many people use applications on smart phones such as the Air Quality Index to decide on outdoor activities, or whether to take the bicycle to work or use the train. Actually the screenshot below shows the Index. The user has multiple references to determine the pollution level. In fact, Chinese users in urban areas often refer to the US Embassy Index because of lack of trust into the accuracy of the local government’s measuring system.  I was told that I was very lucky during my visit, the air was very clear. And yes, in the evenings, I was able to see stars and the moon, which citizens of Beijing are not taken for granted anymore.



She also mentioned that concerns over quality of food in relation to food contamination drives citizens to buy groceries with clear labels of origin or imported food and drinks.  Transparent information is a key element that helps users to make the decisions on how to manage the environmental challenges now. However, cities like Beijing need to design their smart and green city strategy to overcome those and future challenges of urbanization and infrastructure requirements while growing in a sustainable, healthy and most productive way. They also need to build trust by communicating the results transparently to people in a consistent way.

One could think that China’s central government’s strategy of prescribing smart city as a national roadmap of infrastructure roll out would make it very easy to build straight forward consensus on how to do it. But that is not the case.   I met with different local and central leaders who were very interested in getting to know how internationally cities and local governments are establishing their own city-and citizen- perspectives on the vision of urban development. They wanted to understand the impact and measurements on key areas such as urban resilience, traffic and transportation, energy and water management, pollution containment, building and real estate development, healthcare and changes to education and senior citizen care.  Those issues rank in different priorities in other countries, but they are similar to any other city, just the scale and dimension is differently.

At the heart of development of smart cities is the information gathering from different sources, sensors, data bases and social media, the Internet of Everything. In order to avoid data overload and big data issues, the cities need to analyze all this information to map the essence of it to the context of the residential and business citizens.  This analysis is managed through the definition of context in the smart city operating governance framework which establishes the data and information governance as well as the measurements of progress of smart city.

Despite the fact that Chinese cities are supported by the Smart city framework of central government and Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development of China (MOHRUD), the individual data governance and data sharing methodology still varies immensely and is broadly, like in many other countries and cities in the world, dependent on the commitment of agencies to actively pursue information management. I was informed that in order to change traffic signaling of Beijing traffic dynamically in near-real time, data of 4 different agencies need to be linked together. This governance aspect of data migration and information exchange is a key challenge, especially when evaluating the data quality, integrity, data privacy and its reference to citizen and city operations use case and application.

With the assignment of 90 smart cities by MOHRUD in pilot phase 1, many smart city initiatives in different tiers of cities have been under way.  While still a prescribed national strategy, local government will be looking at building technology and citizen ecosystems that are in lock-step with residential and business citizen concerns while fostering environmental and sustainable industrial outcome.

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