By 2030, McKinsey Global Institute predicts, China’s urban population will hit the one billion mark. Just 40 years ago, barely 18% of its population lived in urban areas. Fast forward to September 2019, and that figure is now nearing 60% out of 1.43 billion people.
With the country’s population growing at 0.6% per year amid fast-expanding urbanization, shortages of energy, land, and water are imminent. Calls for sustainable and livable spaces are getting louder. So how will China deal with key issues such as housing, the environment, and transportation while supporting increasing urban population density?
Enter smart cities. At the World Intelligence Congress in Tianjin last May, participants were given a tantalizing glimpse of smart-city management with a giant screen displaying real-time information on traffic, the flow of people, and the weather, beamed from a municipal control center.
Currently, there are 500 smart-city pilot projects in China, representing half of all such initiatives around the world. For the companies involved, there’s big money to be made: last year, the smart cities represented a 200 billion CNY market that financial organizations predict will double by 2023. So how does Chinese and urban growth push the country’s R&D efforts and academic publishing?
Growing Transit Needs
When it comes to moving the masses in urban areas, the transportation system needs to be fast, cost-effective, and reliable while severely reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Networks of greener and faster transportation lines linking one city to the next also facilitate inter-city economic integration and promote the growth of second-tier cities along the rail lines.
High-speed rail is one such solution. China’s high-speed rail network, which connects 80% of its major cities and covers 30,000 km, is now the largest in the world. Investments in railway infrastructure totaled 802.8 billion CNY last year, with much of the R&D focused on building faster and more efficient trains.
Since these trains run on electricity and must be able to draw power from energy sources other than petroleum, R&D in renewable energy has picked up as well. Transportation system simulation and automation laboratories are running at top speed to meet increasing demands. New plans—such as the one announced by the China Aerospace Science & Technology Industry Corporation in August 2017 to develop HyperFlight trains, which can reach up to 4,000-kph speeds, by 2025—are no doubt adding fuel to the R&D efforts.
China has one of the most complex traffic infrastructures and driving behavior patterns in the world. (Overseas automotive companies like BMW Group are opening R&D centers to carry out simulated testing and perfect their technologies in the country.) Autonomous driving technologies are being tested in 16 smart cities. This is where R&D on signaling and wireless communication is most crucial.
The government also plans to increase electric vehicles on the road to two million units by 2020. Come 2035, China may require that 60% of its auto sales be plug-in hybrid or electric cars, up from less than 5% right now. The Chinese Academy of Sciences’ success in identifying a new, cost-effective way of extracting lithium from other minerals—thus bringing the price of lithium-ion batteries down—may have something to do with this ambitious plan.
Turning to AI and Big Data
Shandong University, ride-hailing company DiDi Chuxing, and the Jinan city traffic police have come together to solve traffic congestion there by using AI, Big Data, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things (IoT). The city’s congestion-reduction system, controlling 36 streets and 450 crossroads, searches for optimal traffic solutions and provides real-time recommendations to drivers through mobile apps and outdoor LED screens.
In Hangzhou, Alibaba came up with the “city brain,” which uses AI to prevent gridlock, shorten commutes for the city’s seven million inhabitants, and help fire trucks and ambulances reach emergencies faster. It also incorporates crime analytics for predictive policing, intelligent video surveillance, and intrusion detection systems to promote public security.
Over in Shanghai, a metropolis known for a chronic parking shortage, a smart-parking network is easing congestion and driver frustration. Its mobile app even allows drivers to book parking spaces in advance.
As for Beijing, the government’s drive to integrate AI into the daily lives of its people and introduce the smart-city concept resulted in the launch of a smart park last November. Its features include autonomous shuttle buses and smart walkways and lamp posts that track people’s steps using facial recognition. (Facial recognition backed by AI and 5G wireless internet is another area of interest in China; the government is planning to build a giant database that can identify any of its 1.3 billion inhabitants within seconds. This has raised public concerns about privacy.)
Linking various government services to increase convenience for urban dwellers is another common use of AI and Big Data. The governments of Shanghai and Tianjin offer a cloud-based platform and an app through which residents can access more than 100 public services. Cashless, secure, and fast payments through apps such as WeChat Pay or Alipay further allow residents to skip long lines.
Not surprisingly, 2018 saw tech companies investing 153 billion CNY in R&D on cloud computing, Big Data, and AI, up 45% from the previous year. In the publishing segment, an initiative launched in July 2018 has brought together researchers and major Chinese universities to collaborate on textbooks about AI. East China Normal University Press, for instance, has introduced six textbooks on AI technological research and development for primary and secondary schools; four more titles will be released this year.
Transforming the Built Environment
Buildings are energy guzzlers, and, in urban areas, creating energy-efficient and sustainable buildings while looking into advanced construction materials is now typical.
Corporations and universities, such as Germany-based BASF and Tongji University, are partnering to look into sustainable materials for innovative buildings. Architecture firms, including Milan’s Stefano Boeri Architetti, and municipalities such as Nanjing are working together to implement “vertical forest” buildings. Springer Nature’s publication Spotlight on Materials Science in China highlighted the country’s vast R&D in materials science, an interdisciplinary field that goes beyond construction materials to applications in biomedical engineering, which is particularly important to the elderly urban population.
Then there is the focus on low-carbon, renewable, and greener sources of energy. R&D on solar fuels and solar cells to find better photovoltaic power generation is (pun intended) powering ahead. China has parlayed the results of such research into massive solar farms and become the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels (with 60% of the global output). Solar power is now cheaper than grid electricity in many Chinese cities, further driving demand and R&D. By 2020, investment in clean energy R&D—including such areas as smart grids, intelligent buildings, and hydrogen energy—is predicted to exceed 50 billion CNY.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences is widely acknowledged to be the #1 R&D player in the world in sustainable energy. It is also ranked #1 in research output in chemistry, physical sciences, and earth and environmental sciences in Springer Nature’s 2019 index of the top 100 natural-science institutions worldwide.
Going Cashless and Staffless
On March 8, Shanghai’s rapid transit system recorded its highest daily ridership at 13.3 million. Moving the city’s population of 24.2 million around calls for reducing lines and crowds. So Shanghai and Beijing (which has 21.9 million inhabitants, compared to New York City’s roughly nine million) are going cashless for their public transportation systems.
Beijingers can now buy tickets and add value to their metro cards by scanning QR codes displayed at ticket windows and machines located at transit stations. E-wallet payments are also common in Beijing’s retail outlets and eateries. As a result, unstaffed stores relying on cashless transactions are springing up. These have prompted tech companies like Tencent to focus their R&D programs on mobile payment platform ecosystems, including machine reading, near-field communications, and security. Tencent’s app WeChat and its e-wallet WeChat Pay have more than one billion daily active users.
And sooner or later, the results from all these R&D programs will reach university presses and academic publishing houses for publication and dissemination.