Smart City Suzhou – Eastern Chinese Metropolis Uses A.I. and Others to Forge Ahead

SUZHOU, China, May 16, 2019 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- When traffic builds up in the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou, the city’s intelligent transport systems kick in. The data they have already accumulated means the city can predict its traffic flow within the next hour to an accuracy of more than 94%.

Meanwhile the Suzhou Public Transport Command Center provides a similar function for the city’s 5,000 buses running along 360 routes and carrying 1.5m people a day. It collects data from users swiping in with smartcards and from cameras on board buses and at bus stops.

These smart city systems show how Suzhou, a city with about 4.5m people in its urban zone and another 6m in its wider area, is tackling some of the challenges posed by rapid economic growth that has seen its GDP rise to rank seventh-biggest among all Chinese cities.

And while traffic and linked air pollution blight many cities both in China and globally, smart city systems offer solutions to a far greater range of issues. US consultancy McKinsey estimates that cities can use smart technology to improve key quality of life indicators by between 10% and 30%.

That means more lives saved, lower crime, shorter commutes, better overall public health and reduced environmental impact, while also creating a comfortable, healthy, safe and happy living and working environment for the urban population.

Key Technological Drivers

Globally the smart cities market is set to be more than $2 trillion by 2025 with half of Asia’s smart cities in China, generating $320bn for the Chinese economy, according to Pete Daw from the Global Center of Competence Cities at Siemens and co-author of China’s Urban Future: Opportunities through smart cities.

The key technologies driving smart city systems will be artificial intelligence (AI), personalized healthcare, robotics, advanced driver systems and distributed energy generation, he says.

“Scaling up and connecting smart infrastructures is essential to success. Failing to deliver at scale will lead to disparity in economic growth and opportunity and will also ultimately fail to relieve pressure on resources,” says Mr Daw.

He further points out that the next phase of innovation will be a shift from digital silos, focused on specific sectors such as energy or transport, to digital integration – where these different sectors are connected.

The smart systems currently being installed in Suzhou also amount to a huge business opportunity – creating openings for knowledge and technology transfer globally as many other nations transition to sustainable practices.

Suzhou is part of the Yangtze River Delta City Cluster – part of a central government vision for a world-class urban cluster that exerts global influence.

Cutting-edge Innovation

Suzhou is home to several firms and innovations that aim to improve urban life.

At a national level, China's Ministry of Science and Technology has selected four tech firms –Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and iFlyTek – to work to boost the development of AI technology in the country.

Xue Feng, General Manager of the Alibaba Cloud Innovation Center in Suzhou, says such firms first secure deals to develop smart city systems for an entire city and then provide opportunities for smaller firms to take part via their own innovation networks.

Alibaba’s Suzhou center is incubating a firm called Mobius Vision, which offers a range of solutions including big data and virtual reality services, visual analytics tools and a 3D environment management platform that can be put to use in a variety of public and urban management scenarios. It was founded by Ye Lijun, who returned to China after studying and working in France.

In particular, the firm aims to help officials improve public safety and emergency response performance through the use of virtual reality and scenario forecasting.

Mobius Vision has been included in the Suzhou government’s list of smart city projects and has also been designated among the first batch of enterprises that Mr Xue says will “showcase the effectiveness of big data applications” in the city.

Pipe Dreams

Suzhou is also home to several other projects to improve urban life.

They include a plan to expand utility tunnels – underground galleries where all the pipes and cables now crucial to city living are housed. Such tunnels offer two big advantages – they beautify the city above by removing pipes and cables that were previously above ground and they allow easy access for upgrades and maintenance, meaning that roads do not need repeatedly to be dug up, causing disruption, disturbance and delays to journeys.

The 920m Moon Harbor Underground Pipe Gallery, set up in 2011, was one of the first to be built in China. In 2015 Suzhou was designated one of the country's first pilot cities for pipe galleries and now has two further tunnels in service, carrying power, water, heat and natural gas supply, communications, sewage disposal, cable TV, circulation of reclaimed water and pipes for military purposes. They also have sensors and monitoring systems. The city expects to have about 193km of galleries in service by 2030.

Moon Harbor Engineer Wu Bao says officials from most of the other Chinese cities now building such tunnels have visited the original in Suzhou.

“What we see is that, increasingly, the data management among the different utility systems is becoming integrated, system by system. Also, from a gallery life-cycle management point of view, we are looking to more integrated systems with intelligent operation and maintenance capabilities as well as smart security control,” he said.

The city also has a number of other environmental schemes underway to improve water quality in its lakes and rivers and rejuvenate soil. Waste management projects in collaboration with international partners treat thousands of tons of wastewater and dry waste each day.

Among these initiatives, the Sino-French Environmental Sludge Drying Plant treats 500 tons of sludge a day. The process involves transforming the sludge left over from wastewater treatment into useful products – such as ash that can be used in cement – or green fuel.

Estimates say the Suzhou operation can produce the biomass fuel equivalent of 1.2m tons of standard coal per year. Meanwhile the drying process reduces the volume and weight of the sludge by well over half.

Suzhou was also one of the first cities in China to develop green buildings and ranked among the country’s first low carbon regions and energy-interconnectivity demonstration areas.

The Human Side

If there’s one thing to be wary of amid all this, it's too much information, says Irfan Soneji, Head of Digital Services at BuroHappold Engineering’s Cities Group.

He says that big technology players such as Alibaba are encouraging the use of cloud computing and internet of things sensor networks to help monitor, control and advise the users of the city how best to make decisions in their daily lives.

“But at the same time some cognitive analysis could agree that all this bombardment of information is in fact contributing to an increase in anxiety and stress levels; hence identifying a perfect balance is critical in finding the recipe for a successful smart city,” he says.

Big technology players could also work to address other structural issues in modern cities, he says, such as achieving greater gender balance and reducing inequality in the workplace.

And while growing wealth among Chinese consumers has led to an increase in car ownership, long-term solutions to congestion and air pollution revolve around driving less and improving public transport provision and cycling infrastructure.

“Smartness is not just about technology,” he says.

Nevertheless China’s smart city market is growing by about a third annually, some estimates say. Technology-based solutions are being embraced vigorously by urban regions across the country – a wave of change that Suzhou is helping to lead.



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Lan Shen