Computing Profession

Rewiring Cities For a More Convenient Future

Shanghai is one of several Chinese cities in getting an e-makeover.

Over the next few years, several Chinese cities aim to add broadband and other services that establish them as "e-cities" or "digital cities." The e-cities will use a combination of communications and computing infrastructure to help create "a more convenient society for citizens, business and the government," says a spokesman for China Security & Surveillance Technology, which will manage the e-city implementation for Nanjing and Haineng.

The cities, located in the coastal Jiangsu province near Shanghai, are each working with a contract of about a billion Renminbi, or roughly $150 million. The projects combine broadband infrastructure with flexible computer systems and storage, and integrate geographic databases with global positioning and remote sensing data, the CSST spokesman says. China’s e-cities program builds on the 2006 "safe cities" initiative, which focused on enhanced emergency management and transportation in 660 cities across China. In transportation, for example, the effort includes both coordinating public transport systems and managing and monitoring traffic on private roads. The safe cities program also includes surveillance of public areas, and sharing of databases among different cities.

Three other cities, Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou, have also announced e-city plans, and other major cities are expected to follow suit. The digitization of Beijing’s system is credited with improved operations in support of the 2008 Olympic Games.

Susanne Dirks, who leads IBM’s Global Centre for Economic Development in Ireland, sees the Chinese initiative as just one example of city-level initiatives on many continents. "I wouldn’t see big differences between regions, or one region being more active than another," she says, noting that even within Europe or the United States, some cities are more visionary than others. The rather small city of Dubuque, Iowa, for example, is working with IBM to improve its sustainability by coordinating its water, energy, and transportation systems. Other cities, from Stockholm to Singapore, are exploring new ways to improve their operations as well.

Because many of a city’s challenges are interrelated, "it is important to look at the bigger picture," Dirks said. Various systems, including communication, business, transportation, energy, and water, strongly influence each other and are ideally considered together in planning. IBM talks about "smarter cities," which are instrumented, interconnected, and intelligent–measuring more details of their operations, communicating that information between systems, and using that data to wisely allocate resources.

Since 2008, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, in most cases with a population under a million. Their density makes human impacts particularly obvious, but also provides opportunities. "In a way they are the most challenged," Dirks says, but they also "have the most potential to change things."


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