Collaboration with China Could Boost Smart City Success In The US

Source: Smart Cities Connect on October 25, 2016 | Chelsea Collier

The two major forces driving the 21st Century include the American technology revolution and China’s rapid urbanization. Mix these together and you have the perfect recipe for smart cities. But obviously it’s not quite that simple.

China, with its massive population of 1.4 billion (4x the size of the US), has been pushing people to its urban centers since it opened to foreign influence nearly 30 years ago.  In 1978, 18% of the country lived in cities. Today, that number is close to 56% and is expected to climb to 76% by 2050. To put that in context, in 1978 there were 193 cities in China. Today there are 657. This rapid urbanization is an impetus for a strong Smart City strategy, and China stands ready for the challenge.

On October 24, I had the pleasure of meeting with Deputy Secretary General Li Jianping with the China Smart City Industry Alliance in Beijing, which is an official partner of the Ministry of Information, Industry and Technology. He and his staff presented an incredibly thorough presentation on the status of Smart Cities in China, carefully outlining their model, the stakeholders, the opportunities and the challenges. Throughout our meeting the Deputy Secretary General stressed a desire for international collaboration and cooperation (which just happen to be a few of my favorite words).

There is a common smart city goal between two dominant world powers – the US and China – which is to create cities that are livable and safe while integrating top technology in order to provide a better experience for its citizens. In fact the challenges that face Chinese cities are not that different from those in US. They include: affordability, transportation, density, environmental concerns, access to healthcare, access to clean water and waste management. The differences are around degree of magnification. There are four US cities that have more than two million people. In China, there are 41. In the US, inefficiencies in public sector service deployment are a nuisance. In China, it is catastrophic.

So, it is somewhat understandable that China is a bit ahead of the game compared to the US, when it comes to smart cities. With its massive population, they simply have to be. And while the US has seen some federal leadership in the form of the Smart Cities Challenge issued by the Department of Transportation, it is nothing compared to the commitment from China’s central government. Smart cities are prioritized in China’s 12 Five-Year Plan, which guides economic policy. In addition, there is a ¥100 billion ($16 billion) in promised investment. Equally as important, they are creating internal alignment between 25 government ministries, which have formed working groups to coordinate their efforts with the goal of creating cohesion between local city leadership, industry and citizens.

The critical players in this alignment effort include three smart city organizations all of which are endorsed by the government: The China Smart City Industry Alliance which is an official partner of the Ministry of Information, Industry and Technology (MIIT); The China Strategic Alliance of Smart City Industrial Technology Innovation organized by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST); and the Smart City Development Alliance organized by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).

With all of those governmental layers, my American bias is to presume that this would be a quagmire of ineffectiveness.  And while it may have been slow to form in the beginning, according to Mr. Li, today the three groups have defined their specialty areas and coordinate their efforts. He explained that these three organizations serve to “build a bridge between the government and industry in order to build better cities.”  In addition to these three official groups that are connected with the central government ministries, there are 45 other alliances.

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