BEIJING — This year's China Hi-Tech Fair, held last month in the southern city of Shenzhen, included for the first time a pavilion dedicated to smart cities. During the event, participants also unveiled China's first "standard for smart cities," which will be tested starting in January in eight chosen pilot cities and industrial parks.
A smart city is said to be a dynamic urban and economic management system that brings together valuable talents and activities, where enterprises aren't just entities with vested interests but participants in a new "ecosystem" that is beneficial for all and is connected to government management and the public.
All parties in a smart city have an opportunity to encourage and support each other, simultaneously innovating, improving society and promoting economic restructuring, increasingly through the advanced use of data and other digiital tools.
Foreign multinational giants including IBM, Microsoft, Cisco and Siemens are lining up for the first time behind Chinese companies such as Huawei, ZTE, Shenzhou Digital, Inspur and China Security and Surveillance Technology. This marks a shift from the standing "conservative" approach to managing the growth of cities across China.
The fair's organizer describes the shift as a "rebalancing," saying it corresponds to the government's focus on national information security while looking at the same time to encourage more domestic enterprises to provide technology and solutions in China's smart city development.
It was largely the Edward Snowden affair that demonstrated the risks to the global security of information, prompting Chinese authorities to redefine business action involving national information security. As a result, the smart city initiative, which is closely related to political data, has also entered a "sensitive period."
Cooperation is key
A U.S. research firm called IDC expects China to invest some 2 trillion yuan ($163 billion) over the next decade on smart city development. The task ahead involves complex system engineering and will require basic corresponding conditions and resource allocation infrastructure.
It also needs to progress gradually in accordance with the commercial development rules of the times. The country's goals can only be achieved, furthermore, if the government, companies, scientific and research institutes and the general public form a basic consensus to participate and collaborate interactively.
Intelligent transportation system at the Shenzhen's China Hi-Tech Fair — Photo: Chen Bin/Xinhua/ZUMA
There is no doubt that in this new era and under the new global economic framework China has achieved enviable success. In addition in the world of information, Chinese users also found out that they are able to replace eBay and Amazon with Alibaba, use Youku instead of YouTube, Weibo instead of Twitter and WeChat instead of Facebook. Not only are these replacements set up in China, but it is even possible for the Chinese to establish new standards.
But does this mean that a China-centered commercial order is already forming? Or is such an order defining a clear boundary?
Chinese companies have proven themselves to be technologically strong. As long as the government gives them enough free rein, they will be able to contribute in an unprecedented way to China's smart city development.
Still, there remain many aspects of smart city solutions that China has yet to master, and Chinese enterprises continue to trail behind foreign multinationals in various areas.
From the government's perspective, making rules enables it to have more control in a series of important issues and projects. But if the government fails to link up with all relevant parties and is unclear about each participant's role, then it won't be able to reach a strategic consensus with business and citizens. In that case the smart city won't really constitute a realistic option for solving the major ills of our times.
Rather than defensively holding to a "self-sufficient" view of the world, China would do better to consciously encourage all influential companies to join this process.
Chinese authorities appear more ready now to confront critical urban issues such as food security, air pollution, health care and transport. Foreign enterprises, which are keen to have their stake in China's smart city roadmap, will first have to gain the Chinese government's trust and support. The way to obtain that is to enhance transparency and seriously explore a new model of collaboration with Chinese companies. As for China, it needs to act more inclusively to attract more partners in building up smart cities.