To each geographical region its own particular type of ‘smart’ city. In Asia, as in every other area of the world, you cannot hope to create a smoothly-functioning smart city without taking full account of the specific features of the country in which it is being developed. When we look at Asia, we can place the various countries into four distinct categories, each with its own special priorities: post-industrial countries (South Korea, Japan), countries at an advanced transition stage (China),countries in transition (India, Thailand, Vietnam) and the wealthy city-state of Singapore. In this article we will concentrate on the first two.
The post-industrial countries of South Korea and Japan have – at least in part – already overcome the problems of industry-related pollution. The effects of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, and the pollution imported into South Korea from China remain serious issues, as does the heightened risk of earthquakes that Japan has to cope with. However, the biggest worry for these two countries is that their citizens are becoming increasingly isolated.
Dedicated social networks for the distressed
In Japan the population is declining and people are growing increasingly isolated, either due to their marital status (70% of people under 34 are still single) or because of their age (the over-65 age group represent more than 21% of the population). Loneliness is also very much an issue in South Korea, where around fifty elderly people commit suicide every day. In fact South Korea has the highest suicide rate of all the OECD countries. In a bid to address this tendency, the authorities have installed anti-suicide systems on bridges over the Han River in Seoul and dedicated social networks and helpline apps have been created to help people in distress. The suicide syndrome can partly be explained by the fact that more and more people are becoming isolated and feeling that they are no longer of any use to the Confucian society in which they grew up.
Among those looking to provide technology-based solutions to the problem, there are a number of startups specializing in ‘connected’ homes for senior citizens. Inounou, founded in Shanghai by Charles Bark, has developed a device which links elderly people up to a ‘connected home’ system which offers a range of services depending on their precise needs: a tri-camera that provides remote communication without the need to take out your phone; connected shoe-soles that record the number of steps you have taken and can then alert carers if you become immobile; and automatic transmission of health data, such as cardiac tension. One of the priority goals on the smart city front in this region is to ensure easier links between people. These tools will not solve every problem, but they will help to make cities more liveable, more human.
City pollution, a major issue
In the medium term, China is likely to face similar demographic problems. Moreover, the active working population will probably not be numerous enough to support their superannuated fellow-citizens. This growing demographic imbalance is due to a) increasing longevity in China and b) the one-child-only policy maintained by the government for some 42 years.
However, although elderly people are now beginning to suffer from social isolation in what is becoming an increasingly individualistic society and while 80 million children in China are being raised by their grandparents because their parents have had to move to another province for economic reasons, Chinese towns, with their neighborhood committees, collective dances, public choirs and supportive family networks, certainly do not give the impression of being deserts of isolation.
The problems in urgent need of attention by smart cities in China lie more in the field of excessive motor traffic and pollution. Urban pollution is the most worrying development. In spite of its genuine environmental ambitions, its highly centralized organisation and ongoing struggle against over-production, China cannot suddenly close down its coal-fired power plants and steelworks without throwing hundreds of thousands of people into unemployment.
As it goes through its transition, China needs to focus hard on the ‘green’ economy. Projects for offshore windfarms, vegetable walls, pollution detectors and smart grids designed to optimise electricity consumption are flourishing and investment is pouring in. In Shanghai L’Atelier has come across such inventive ventures as Enwise, a startup founded by Stéphane Vernede whose business proposition is to treat some 430 million tons of organic waste per year using machines that can each recycle up to a ton of waste at a time locally. Enwise has also created a mobile app that enables remote control of the recycling machines and a system of predictive maintenance.
Meanwhile China’s population is converging on the major towns and cities at an ever-faster rate, generating massive road traffic. Alternative modes of transport are therefore being developed to address this issue. Today hundreds of millions of Chinese people are using an app called Didi (‘younger brother’), which is like a sort of Uber, Taxi G7 and Blablacar all rolled into one, offering a private chauffeur service, a taxi ride or a car-pooling arrangement.
This smart connected service is a start, but not in itself sufficient to combat urban pollution. A more radical solution is provided by the connected bicycles that have been appearing in major towns over the past eighteen months. Elegant, with cutting-edge design, these bikes can be geolocated, unlocked and re-locked using a smartphone and a simple QR code. Mobike leads the way, boasting 470,000 users and backed by big investors such as Tencent and Foxconn, and with ambitions to expand abroad to such places as Singapore, followed by a number of competitors including Ofo, which currently has 200,000 users, strong investors in the shape of Didi and Xiaomi, and its sights firmly on international expansion to London, San Diego and Singapore. The point that Didi and Mobike have in common is basically their way of creating a Smart City in the transport sphere by turning bicycles and cars into connected objects fed by Big Data that are part and parcel of the Internet of Things.
Smart Cities must be connected beyond their own boundaries
A brief examination of Korea, Japan and China reveals just how far geography remains the heart and soul of any given city. The ‘smart’ cities of the 21st century will certainly depend enormously on the technology trio of AI, Big Data and the IoT, plus also networks in general. However, if they are to prove successful in human terms, such advanced cities will need to regard themselves as part of a country and part of the planet, not as an isolated urban space, as mediaeval cities used to be seen.
Some encouraging signs are coming for instance from China, where village cooperatives are now using sophisticated online logistics and trading systems to sell their agricultural and horticultural produce directly to major city outlets, bypassing middlemen. In fact today the major power in the retail business there is the Alibaba online platform rather than huge bricks and mortar chains, which are much less concentrated than in the United states or Europe.
This approach holds out the promise of a much more balanced world than one composed solely of major cities linked together by Hyperloop. And so the smart cities of Asia might well attain their key 21st century goals on both the technological and human front if they can succeed in connecting towns and countryside smoothly and harmoniously.
Article originally published in French on the website of leading daily Le Monde