SUZHOU, China– With advances in computing and wireless technology the dream of creating ‘smart cities’ grows more realistic each day. Nowhere is this more true than in eastern China’s Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) — where schools, hospitals, hotels, administration buildings, restaurants and public transportation systems are all being plugged in to a smart grid that SIP Chairman Yang Zhiping believes will see the power of information harnessed in the same way that steam and electricity were in previous eras.
“The future’s evolution of cloud, mobile services, and all smart city technologies will give new opportunities to everybody, including hackers.”
"Information will change the relationship between governments, people, countries and enterprises," Yang says. "And the great thing is, the more you use it, the more efficiency you have. It breaks the isolation between departments, authorities and different entities."
It is that very philosophy and can-do mindset that has helped SIP muscle its way up the value chain, attracting by 2012 US$21.67 billion in foreign investment and US$42.7 billion in domestic Chinese investment since it was created nearly two decades ago as a joint-venture project between the Chinese and Singapore government. And the Chinese Ministry of Commerce ranks SIP as the most competitive industrial park in the country.
Today the industrial park has developed thriving hubs for high-tech and high-value industries such as nanotechnology and bio-pharmaceuticals, is home to projects with investment from 86 Fortune 500 enterprises, and boasts GDP north of US$25 billion. SIP’s roughly 3,000 start-up companies have attracted China’s biggest venture capital and private equity community with 200 VC firms in the park and US$5.5 billion to invest.
Just as a move up the value chain was all part of the plan when this city-within-a-city was set up in 1994, so was the creation of a smart city. SIP has already synthesized nearly 100 data centers — ranging from geographics to corporate and census infomation — run by 20-some local government-entities, and is one of ten smart city pilot projects in China accredited by the Ministry of Housing and Construction.
And at SIP, stakeholders, as well as members of the public, all have a say in how the systems can improve their lives – exactly the kind of multi-level buy in that is essential to the success of smart city projects, according to Charbel Aoun, Senior Vice President of Schneider Electric’s Smart Cities, Strategy and Innovation.
"No single company or organization can build a smart city alone," Aoun says. "All communities must involve each of their most important stakeholders, including government officials, citizens, and the private sector, in the process, or face tremendously difficult obstacles in making its vision a reality."
Today SIP is at the forefront when it comes to the collection, management and practical application of ‘big data’. Currently, SIP’s Geoinformation Services (GIS) is taking data and building a map of the city that contains 660 layers of information ranging from power lines to green areas to population demographics. The aim is for each layer to be managed by the relevant agency and for it to be gathered by the system to form a complete package which can be selectively open to third-party application developers.
SIP is in a better position than many other cities to implement its smart city dream thanks to its master-plan, says Tao Hong, the chief architect of GIS. The master-plan means that SIP doesn’t have to deal with legacy issues, he explains, and can essentially start "from a clean slate."
Indeed, central planning does distinguish SIP from smart city models in Europe and the US. Cities like Amsterdam and Boston are working to improve feedback systems and energy efficiency – while preserving the existing community and culture – but they face challenges that SIP easily overcomes. Politics and fragmented government agencies, combined with uncoordinated regional planning, dissuade the implementation of SIP-like smart city innovations elsewhere.
"Other cities may also have multiple companies providing systems and services, creating a silo effect when it comes to data," Tao says. "In SIP, GIS is the sole geoinformation provider. We have a seamless integration of data."
Examples of how such data has already been put to use include managing peak-time traffic flows by intelligently adjusting the timing of traffic lights. Four main roads and about 70 crossings are piloting the system and the results have been impressive. The changes have resulted in a 15-20% reduction in travel times during peak hours.
Bus stops also will have screens giving travelers real-time information such as how long they must wait for the next bus. Then there are the green bikes that can be seen at docking stations across the city, free to use for citizens that have a special SIM card. A computer system keeps track of bike flows between docking stations so those running low on bikes can be replenished. Xu Jinfang, deputy head of SIP’s urban planning bureau, notes that by the end of 2013 there will be 400 docking stations with 10,000 bikes available for free use.
"The unique design that differentiates SIP’s green bike program from that of other cities is that the docking stations are placed in such a way that they correlate with the must-go destinations of commuters, such as residential blocks, transit points in the public transport network, and other places where they can bridge the last-mile of frequently undertaken journeys," Xu says.
Other plans include connecting the city’s clinics and hospitals to a cloud system that will allow them to access and update centralized medical records via laptops, I-pads and telephones.
"We have a dream that, with your ID number, you will be able to access all your information on healthcare, education, social security and tax," Yang says.
Eventually the goal is that everyone will have their digital assets on the net and that they will be protected. "This is a big step," says Yang, "a revolutionary step."
Of course, security is a major concern and stringent security measures have been put in place, according to Li Feiyuan, head of SIP’s IT Development Bureau. Li notes that T-4 Certified Data Storage employed at SIP provides the equivalent storage security financial institutions enjoy. SIP also takes further measures to ensure that users can only access data relevant to them, and that the data privacy of individuals is safe.
"We need to know that any move to a cloud provider is reversible," says Anthony Plewes, an expert at Orange Business Services, a world-class SmartCity solution provider. "The future’s evolution of cloud, mobile services, and all smart city technologies will give new opportunities to everybody, including hackers."
To be sure it’s not as easy as simply plugging different systems in to each other. As well as the practicalities of ironing out discrepancies in information that have built up between long-separated systems, Yang says the most important thing is to have a clear vision of exactly what you hope to achieve with the data. In SIP’s case, this involved laying down a master-plan that set out how to organize the data, and what its final application would be. It’s a fluid plan that is constantly under discussion and review and divided into five-year segments.
The dream for five to ten years down the line is for all this to be integrated in to one system "that will see efficiency squared," Yang says. "We need a long-term strategy from the very beginning, along with continuous execution. While every road may lead to Rome, you have to stick to one route rather than going back and starting another, otherwise you will never get there."