China will leapfrog the US in smart cities as well as 5G

China leapt ahead of the US in its 5G infrastructure technology – and it’s about to do the same in another area of technology that will come to define the way we live.

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  1. Garry White

This week, China’s Tencent provided another update on the smart city it is building in Shenzhen, which it aims to start building later this year. Net City, which will be the size of mid-town Manhattan, will have fewer streets for cars, garden roofs on buildings and use heating and cooling systems where people are currently located. Net City will use technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous vehicles, with mangroves and other natural features to help mitigate climate change.

However, to achieve this, the city will collect a significant amount of data on all its residents’ movements using a centralised database to control the functioning and running of the city. The smart city is not a city where residents will be able to maintain their privacy.

Last month, Alphabet unit Sidewalk Labs abandoned plans to build a smart city prototype in Toronto, Canada. It blamed economic issues surrounding the Covid-19 outbreak, but the main factor was probably the controversy created about the mass collection of information on individuals. Its critics argued that the city was literally built to collect data about its residents and visitors – and a lack of trust in big technology companies and what they would do with personal data led to significant resistance. 

Privacy a major issue

In China, there are no such issues with data privacy. The authoritarian government already collects mass data on its citizens, monitors their movements and even plans to give all individuals a ‘social score’ depending on how the Communist Party ranks their behaviour. Tencent’s smart city is being built on government land with government backing – and Chinese residents, as usual, have no say.

Urbanisation is a structural phenomenon that looks set to continue, as people move from rural areas to take advantage of economic opportunities that urban centres present. By 2050, the United Nations predicts that two out of every three people are likely to be living in cities or other urban centres – about 2.5 billion people more than now.

This means developing conurbations with environmental, social, and economic sustainability is vital in a world trying to reduce energy consumption and save central government costs. Smart cities offer a solution to this conundrum.

Alphabet’s Toronto project was ostensibly scrapped because of Covid-19’s impact on the property market. Without being able to profitably sell the units, the project was not viable, Sidewalk Labs claimed. However, the pandemic was probably the final nail in its coffin after the project shrunk in scope in recent years because of opposition to “privately-owned cities” in Canada.

Profitability is also difficult at the vanguard of technological development. The profit motive is not a major driving force for Chinese companies in these strategically important areas. These companies have government representatives assigned to them, blurring the line between the corporate sector and the state. This all part of its Made in China 2025 policy, which aims to significantly advance the country’s economy and become technological leaders in numerous areas. It proved a success in 5G, prompting the US to discourage allies from using equipment from companies such as Huawei, which the US administration this week said was backed by the Chinese military. US government pension funds have been banned from investing in companies that the US deems acts as agents of the Chinese military and this could be extended to starve such companies of western funding.

Western conundrum

The problem for Western nations is that the future of technology depends on big data sets being collected about human behaviour and interactions. Opinion may be shifting slightly in the Covid-19 pandemic, as it is probable that contact tracing apps will be introduced that will track people’s movements and monitor who they are interacting with. It will be interesting to see how people react to this invasion of their privacy – and how many are willing to sacrifice this for ‘the greater good’.

Contact tracing apps have been widely accepted in China where attitudes to privacy are different. Western nations have been skittish about their introduction because, culturally, this sacrifice of privacy is likely to be opposed by many.  

The UK did trial a Bluetooth based app on the Isle of Wight before it was scrapped as ineffective. Big technology companies are likely to be pleased by the fact that the app was quickly downloaded by more than half of the island's smartphone users. But, after the pandemic, will they be as willing to hand over their data to private businesses? This seems unlikely. 

The development of 5G technology and the internet of things (IoT) are essential for the development of smart cities. But so is public support for the collection of real-time data about their lives, who they are meeting and where they spend their time. Like 5G, becoming a global leader in this area is a priority for the Chinese government. Convincing westerners to give up some of their much-valued privacy is key to the development of this technology. This is the main factor that handing Beijing its advantage – and it’s an issue that will be difficult to resolve in freedom-loving countries such as our own.

A version of this article appeared in the Daily Telegraph.

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