Smart Cities International: Algerian Wi-Fi, DIY Urbanism, Honduras Hackathon

Here is a preview of our exclusive newsletter to keep up-to-date and stay inspired by Smart City innovations from around the world.

Street scene in Baltimore, Maryland
Street scene in Baltimore, Maryland
Emily Liedel






Hello City Folk!

While there are many inorganic elements to any city — buildings, roads, geography — cities simply cannot exist without the humans who live there. Each city in the world is made unique by virtue of the different cultures, habits, languages, actions and ideas of its inhabitants. Yet it is also true that citizens often feel constrained and disempowered by the cities they live in, with little say over local regulations that might undermine their well-being or the way that municipal funds are distributed.

Thankfully, more and more mobile applications are being developed as part of smart city initiatives to try and bridge this divide between the city's residents and its government. Of course there are still other ways than using a smartphone for citizens to get some attention! This week, in addition to other smart city news, we’re taking a look at local initiatives by citizens in Russia, Colombia, Germany, U.S. and Honduras that are designed to help residents to not only be seen, but heard, in the places they call home.

— Emily Liedel
During the Global Urban Data Fest at the end of February, 30 cities from around the world participated in a Smart Cities Hackathon to encourage young developers to develop mobile apps that make life easier. One of the participating cities was San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where the winning group presented an app that would allow the city's public transportation to be controlled by using GPS technology, PanamPost reports (Spanish). Not surprisingly, many of the projects the 15 groups worked on had to do with security: San Pedro Sula has the highest murder rate in the world.
“If we are trying to solve the crime problem with technology alone, we are on the wrong path, because technology will only help when all the actors are committed,” said Enrique Topolansky, an Uruguayan entrepreneur who helped judge the Smart City Hackathon in San Pedro Sula.
The famously car-dependent American cities of Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta have been taking steps to become less so, investing in buses and light rail systems and prioritizing neighborhood walkability. In some cases the plans for alternative transit options have been on the back burners of the local governments for more than 50 years, and some of the projects being built today mirror never-fulfilled plans from the 1960s almost down to the blueprints themselves, City Lab reports.
A joint project by mobile phone carrier Mobilis and the Swedish electronics company Ericsson to bring high-speed mobile internet to Africa launched this week with its first project in Algiers, Algeria. The two companies are working together to install a “City Site,” which is made up of a series of small cells that are autonomous, have multiple functions and work together intelligently to support the city’s wireless network — as well as to support the development of other smart technologies that require high-speed mobile networks, Tekiano reports (French).

This is an excerpt of our Smart Cities newsletter. To receive the full version each week, go to VIP signup here.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!