China’s Technotopia Project- Xiongan

The world’s greatest cities have always been pinnacles of humanity’s progress and achievement. They are shining beacons that harness the ultimate potential of people, combining cooperation and planning with technological sophistication to provide elevated levels of convenience and economic opportunity. Throughout the world people are migrating from rural areas to cities. This massive trend of urban migration is ubiquitous as cities offer greater economic opportunity as the worldwide economy shifts from focusing on physical labor to cognitive labor. In 2007, for the first time, more people lived in cities than in the countryside. This inevitable trend of human migration is set to continue, and accelerate, as the UN projects that by 2050, 68% of people will live in cities compared to 55% today.

As our cities become more crowded they become difficult to manage. The future of humanity is intrinsically linked to the future of the city. We are required to ask fundamental questions about how we want our cities of the future to be developed. Given the industrial intensiveness of urban infrastructure, updating existing cities can prove exceptionally costly and challenging from a logistical standpoint. Building new city infrastructure from the ground up is a much more convenient way to equip an urban area with the latest designs and technologies. Comparing New York to Chinese cities, this is especially evident, as the efficiency of newly built Chinese subway systems make New York feel like an archaic relic of a bygone era.

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China’s population has embraced this urban migration, as from 1970 to 2010, China’s urban population grew by 281%. This has caused local governments to try to cap the population in mega-cities like Beijing and Shanghai. However there is a new solution on the horizon.

(photo source: Internet)

Xiongan New Area is a region in Hebei province about 100 km southwest of Beijing. Formerly a group of rural counties, Xiongan will be the archetype for Chinese cities of the future. In April 2017, the government announced that it would develop an entirely modern city, featuring infrastructure equipped with the latest in urban planning technologies. Leveraging China’s incredible capacity to collect data through its robust surveillance apparatus, Xiongan officials will be able to optimize for efficiency gains in urban systems from transportation to public services.

Peng Peng, General Secretary of China New Energy Investment and Financing Alliance, commented, “The new city is like a white piece of paper, it’s easy to design. The new city will act as a guide for existing cities.”

Xiongan New Economic Zone
Xiongan New Economic Zone (Photo Source: Bloomberg)

At the forefront of the digitization of these urban systems is Chinese tech giant Alibaba. Alibaba’s Ali Cloud, and City Brain have already leveraged big data to optimize city infrastructure in Hangzhou, where its HQ is currently located. In 2016, Alibaba debuted City Brain in an effort to streamline the transport systems and emergency response services in Hangzhou. City Brain improves traffic flows, by making live traffic predictions, and detecting traffic incidents using data from video footage, traffic bureaus, and public transportation systems. The incident detection system has a 95% success rate, dramatically reducing the need for cumbersome manual monitoring. After two years, Hangzhou, dropped from the 5th to the 57th spot on the list for China’s most congested cities, according to Alibaba.

Simon Hu, President of Alibaba Cloud, said, “Enabled by City Brain, we can monitor the vehicles in real time, whether it’s in motion or stationary. It’s an amazing thing for a city to have knowledge of specific numbers about on-road vehicles in real time.”

These improvements have been achieved despite having to adapt to an existing infrastructure. It is likely that designing a completely new city will allow for smarter urban design to augment the already formidable capabilities of City Brain. Also, Baidu Inc.’s Apollo autonomous driving system will also feature in Xiongan’s transport network, allowing the new city early adoption of the latest in autonomous driving technology. In addition to traffic management, other city systems, such as energy and water supplies will be linked into City Brain, allowing the precise data-driven management of city resources.

SEE ALSO: Baidu Apollo Launches Camera Based Solution for Level 4 Autonomous Driving

Alibaba has initiated an urban development planning lab in Xiongan, to accelerate its transformation into a digital city. Yang Baojun, President of the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design, says that every level of change in the city will be reflected upon big data and AI. With China’s impending development and implementation of 5G networks, the power and scale of these data-driven insights will only further empower the intelligent infrastructure in Xiongan.

Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba and entrepreneurial icon, said in a statement, “Our purpose is not to do business in Xiongan, but to bring our technological prowess and innovation resources to build it into a prototyped city of the future and a model for all Chinese cities.”

(photo source: Internet)

Not only do these gains in efficiency save residents time and boost their convenience, but also amplifies the effectiveness of the city’s sustainability efforts. The intelligent approach to city resource monitoring will minimize the mismanagement and waste of resources, and thus the negative impact on the environment. The dense population distribution of cities previously contributed to increased waste and unsanitary conditions, however, the same tight proximity of people will allow for the further optimization of data-driven resource management, fundamentally altering how dense populations affect city management. In fact, the Chinese government has ambitiously announced that they want Xiongan to operate on 100% clean power. Such an achievement would not only make Xiongan the blueprint for urban construction throughout the country, but the entirety of the world, as each nation tries to find its own solution to the expanding urban population.

In May 2019, the Chinese government began formally acquiring land in Xiongan from local residents, offering compensation in either the form of cash or alternative accommodation. Businesses have already begun to flock to the city, seeking investments to capitalize on what they believe will be a thriving metropolis of the future. For example, China Southern Airlines Co. will invest 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) in Xiongan, allocating 2.5 billion yuan in cash and 7.5 billion yuan in tangible assets to set up a subsidiary called China Southern Airline Xiongan Co. in the city, to provide flight services and sales of aviation materials.

The investment frenzy surrounding the development of Xiongan is intense. Jiang Yunhai bought the domain name in 2003, and as of 2017 he has received over 1,000 offers for it, with some offers as high as 2 million yuan.

Despite the tantalizing combination of government support and a tailor-made environment for Chinese tech companies to test the wide-scale implementation of frontier technologies, there are those who question the rationale and logic of the Xiongan project. Jude Blanchette, a specialist in Chinese politics at the Crumpton Group, an international advisory and business development firm based in the US, said, “Xiongan is a pet project of Xi Jinping’s and as such its progress undulates with the amount of attention he devotes to it. When the leader is distracted, mega projects like these languish.”

Gu Su, a political scientist at Nanjing University, commented, “Many experts and businesspeople have serious concerns over its location, ecological problems and socioeconomic costs. And that’s why, as far as I know, many investors who initially showed interest in Xiongan later chose to leave.” Some of these signs point to a government project that hasn’t received the backing from the private sector required to make Xiongan a success. It is just over two years since the government’s announcement in 2017, and still the city’s development has not perhaps reached the heights that were envisioned. However, with the personal backing of President Xi, Xiongan should continue to receive serious government attention and promotion in the years to come.

The Xiongan New Area project has real significance not just within China, but to governments globally. With the world watching, Xiongan’s success could serve as a worldwide prototype for smart city creation. Alibaba and other Chinese companies’ experience in Xiongan, should it be successful, would be valuable and perhaps enable them to export their intelligent urban development practices abroad, to help other countries construct their latest and greatest cities. Alibaba has already introduced its City Brain in Malaysia, with trails ongoing in Kuala Lumpur. Conversely, should the Xiongan project fail, and it will serve as a cautionary tale, decrying the viability of government led city genesis.

Featured photo credit to Michael Sorkin Studio