Why the UK is playing catch up with China in the smart city race

The UK could learn a lot from China when it comes to smart city development according to Arup's global digital services director Will Cavendish

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A clear definition of smart infrastructure needs, central planning, and a sizeable heaping of political will has helped China set the pace for smart city development, with Deloitte finding that the country hosts over half of them worldwide. Can the UK ever hope to catch up?

“When people talk about smart cities [in the UK] it’s actually nothing more than a bunch of traffic lights that are linked together,” Will Cavendish, global digital services director at the engineering firm Arup tells Computerworld during the IoT Solutions World Congress in Barcelona.“It’s all a bit underwhelming, so city leaders in particular have been promised these great big visions of what technology can do but it’s not really what they expect.”

A smart city is the re-development of an urban area or city using information and communication technologies (ICT) to enhance the performance and quality of services such as energy, transport, connectivity and utilities.

Therefore, a city becomes ‘smart’ when these technologies are deployed to change the economics and nature of the surrounding infrastructure.

According to figures from Deloitte, China accounts for 500 of the world’s smart cities with examples of technology and data being used to improve the lives of residents. One example is Yinchuan in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, where commuters use facial recognition technology on public buses to make payments and residential areas are fitted with smart lockers to receive mail.

China may be leading the way here, but it isn't the only country implementing smart city developments. London for example has been ranked as a world leading smart city, second only to New York, according to figures from the IESE Business School, which looks to rank world cities according to their sustainability and smart credentials.

The argument lies in what a smart city actually looks like for different countries. In the UK, there are examples of road enhancements and ‘smart’ traffic lights for connectivity. Such use cases may not rank so highly in China’s smart city dictionary where things like facial recognition and smart parking are prioritised.

“What we’re finding now, and this is particularly happening in China, is that there is now a scale of investment going in to actually embed these technologies in the fabric of cities and that’s not just new cities but even in an existing system,” Cavendish adds.

Read next: What is a smart city? How to define a smart city

Current state

Although China only began piloting smart city developments in 2012, the country has been able to achieve much already. Cavendish explains that China has more flexibility to generate investment when rolling out smart city developments.

The differences, compared to the UK, include a more centralised government, sizeable investment appetite and a larger and more technology-savvy customer community – providing China with an easier gateway to development.

“Government in China obviously has been immensely successful in modernising the country and when the government says this is a must, all the people get on and do it for real,” Cavendish says.

Tech vendors are also turning to China as a result, as they use the country as a “testing ground for the rest of the world,” Cavendish adds.

Take 5G deployment as an example. "It’s completely different over there and within three years half of Chinese cities will be connected up with 5G,” he adds. “They’re accelerating the rollout of 5G-enabled handsets and there’s a range of reasons why it’s growing there.”

This includes support from vendors such as Huawei and Qualcomm, which are driving 5G-enabled smartphone sales in China.

“Comparing that with the UK, I don’t think there’s that feeling of physical urgency around this and I don’t think there’s a shared feeling that in the next five years some step changes need to be made,” he explains.

According to Cavendish, the 5G rollout process is more complicated in the UK. This is because the decision making of environmental issues involves a number of vendors and requests must be signed off by various heads of local authorities.

“If you talk to the average city mayor here in the UK, they’d tell you that the energy utilities work with a different geography. It’s got its own legal governance and regulators,” he says. “It’s also impossible to handle Network Rail because they’re completely different, it’s difficult to have full power over local transport, the school system and so on and the task of aligning all that is difficult.”

Read more: Best smart cities in the UK

Of course there are privacy concerns to be aware of when it comes to highly connected urban infrastructure and its potential for mass surveillance. China has attracted controversy for its approaches to surveillance, which according to the South China Morning Post range from working on facial recognition technology that could identify people within three seconds, to drones disguised as doves.

The use of facial recognition technology in London has also attrracted the attention of privacy campaigners, with Verdict citing research by Comparitech, which showed that Londoners are subject to more surveillance than any citizens outside of China.

Use cases

Arup is currently working on a number of smart city development strategies with clients using ‘digital master planning’ to understand what different technologies can bring to individual districts and cities.

A digital master plan is defined by Arup as a design roadmap for ICT infrastructure, systems and technologies that can be applied to a site or city.

One example is its work with Sunsea AIoT, a Chinese firm which partnered with China Telecom to install 500,000 NB-IoT sensors. Arup is working with the firm to deliver smart city use cases like smart recycling and traffic flow management to improve the lives of citizens, with research into what residents and businesses want.

“A lot of the technology companies know their technology amazingly well, but they have a habit of turning up the tech but not addressing what the residential use and benefits are,” Cavendish explains. “So, we’re working with the tech companies as they recognise they’re not very good at that but brilliant at developing cloud infrastructures, sensors and so on.”

Cavendish told us this is quite different in the UK, where tech companies are not investing at the same pace. Instead, Arup works with local city authorities on potential smart city developments.

“An active area of work is on the building side, so we’re working with a range of cited property companies like British Land and Landlease who understood that the building of the future will be a smart building,” he adds.

This is not only focused on improving how the buildings operate, but making it better for all people who use it with a specific focus on carbon reduction and sustainability benefits.

“It tends to be the city authorities who tend to be pushing for it more in the UK,” Cavendish says. “We do a lot of work in Manchester because of the devolution of powers, there’s a reasonable ability for the Manchester mayor to try and create some of these things, and Birmingham as well.”

“However, when it comes to investment, Chinese venture capital and tech companies are probably leading the world in genuinely connecting up cities from a technology point of view."

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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