Shenzhen, the tech powerhouse in south China's Guangdong Province, has digitized most government administrative affairs in recent years as China forges ahead with smart city developments.
Artificial Intelligence and big data have transformed the way locals interact with the government, with tech giants such as Alibaba, Tencent and Ping An Smart City spearheading the innovation.
"We want to let data do most of the heavy-lifting instead of humans," said Wayne Hu, co-president and chief technology officer of Ping An Smart City.
His team is behind much of the city's digital makeover, most notably the "iShenzhen" mobile app. It handles more than 8,000 government administrative affairs, from paying utility bills and traffic fines to managing housing benefits and even entering a lottery for the central bank's digital currency.
"We believe smart city requires immense support, not just in writing the codes but also shaping how real life problems are solved," Hu said.
Photo: Nanfang Daily
'It can catch a mouse'
Another widely-used solution is Ping An's AI-powered food regulation network, which shortens the approving period of issuing a restaurant license to no more than an hour from weeks during the off-line process.
"Applicants film their premises with our app. The video contains GPS and time stamps which allow AI to determine whether the restaurant complies with health and safety codes," said Hu, adding that an outdoor trash bin cannot be within 20 meters of the restaurant.
Nothing slips through the cracks - even in pitch darkness. "If there's a mouse running through the kitchen floor at night, the camera will catch it," Hu said.
The Ping An Smart City system also tracks cold-chain foods from the ports they arrive in the markets where they are sold, helping to alleviate concerns that COVID-19 could spread via packaging.
At the heart of every smart city initiative is the need to become more efficient. For example, traffic lights are altered in accordance with real-time traffic conditions and cloud data helps hospitals speed up diagnosis of COVID-19 cases.
The goal is to equip cities with a "digital brain" and a "central nervous system" that integrates data across all government agencies and businesses.
The data can be used to manage industries and identify which sectors to focus on, and allocate resources to where they are most needed.
Researchers believe smart city solutions can help governments and companies save billions of dollars every year.
Wu Haifeng, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shenzhen), thought there are immense economic and environmental benefits in smart traffic regulation alone.
"Most of the vehicular pollution comes from emissions during the waiting periods," said Wu, adding "It isn't just about locals, for investors coming to Shenzhen, knowing they can get through traffic in an emergency also helps bring in business."
"It's about having confidence in a government's ability to improve the quality of life," Wu said.
Photo: Nanfang Daily
Surveillance as a public service
China is home to over 1,000 smart city projects worldwide. Much of the advancements here are amplified by 5G, which makes communication among sensors, devices, and databases almost instantaneous.
Some critics however have questioned whether China's rapid smart city proliferation could be considered mass surveillance, as cameras and censors study how we behave in order to regulate traffic, fight crimes, and save energy.
Wu thought there are some misconceptions regarding smart city infrastructure.
"People always think about the number of cameras watching everything and everyone, but in fact less than 40 percent of smart city devices are cameras. Most devices are actually data censors, which collect public data such as air quality and noise," Wu said.
Such data give policy-makers valuable information to make better decisions. Wu quoted a study showing that a city's traffic congestion reduced by 50 percent and crime rate reduced by 70 percent after adopting smart city solutions.
But where the "surveillance for the public good" argument falls short, legislation provides a crucial layer of guarantee.
"Cyber security and privacy invasion are common human problems. To solve these problems I think the most important thing is legislation," Wu said.
"Luckily we can see that the Chinese government, either the local government or the central government, has paid enormous attention to the usage of data in the past few years, like the privacy act and the personal information protection act, to prevent the misuse of data," said Wu.