Don't miss out

Don't miss out

Don't miss out

Water channels
Sign up to receive exclusive Climate insights
Sign up to receive exclusive Climate insights
Sign up to receive exclusive Climate insights
Want to hear more from our experts? Get the Climate newsletter.
Want to hear more from our experts? Get the Climate newsletter.
Want to hear more from our experts? Get the Climate newsletter.
Subscribe now

How big data and intelligent technology can shape smart cities in China

How big data and intelligent technology can shape smart cities in China
By Enrui Zhang
Aug 26, 2019

Each of China’s smart cities will have a unique character. But, to develop the right digital infrastructure, it will take the same four layers of technology.

When you think of a city, you probably picture loads of activity, people, buildings, and traffic. We interact constantly with both other people and our environment. Imagine breaking down each of these interactions and measuring them—that's a lot of data.

Now consider China, the most populous country in the world. It has more than 100 cities of over 1 million residents, and five have more than 10 million. If projections are accurate, by 2050, 80% of China’s population (about 1.2 billion) will live in cities, compared to 60% today.

Cities comprise 2% of the earth’s surface, yet they use 60% of the world’s energy—emitting 70% of our waste and responsible for the same proportion of greenhouse gas emissions. These aspects seem like a potential threat to our future, but urban living can also bring unprecedented opportunities.

“At their best, cities have enabled people to advance socially and economically,” says the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Action program, whose 11th goal is about cities and communities. The “future cities” concept and the idea of smart cities are both aligned with the mission of making metropolises inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.

" A sustainable city must meet the needs of the populace today without preventing future generations from meeting their needs. Cities can become dynamos for creativity, productivity, and affluence—as long as we harness the benefits of technology to actively plan, design, and build them."

Twitter icon 24x24 Click to tweet 

Smart cities or future cities?

According to standards, a smart city is one that increases the pace of its social, economic, and environmental sustainability outcomes. Smart cities respond to challenges such as climate change, rapid population growth, and political and economic instability by fundamentally improving how they engage society. They apply collaborative leadership methods, work across disciplines and city systems, and use data information and modern technologies to deliver better services and quality of life. A smart city achieves this for the people living and working in the city now and for the foreseeable future, without unfair disadvantage or degradation of the natural environment.

The notion of a future city doesn’t have an authorized or unified definition. However, there’s a general view that the scope of a future city is much broader than the concept of a smart city. It can encompass culture and how urban areas are evolving to meet future trends and expectations. The smart city and its association with data and technological development is crucial in building future cities.


By the end of 2018, there were more than 500 Chinese municipalities either planning or developing smart cities. Until recently, the speed of information processing was far too slow even to contemplate dealing with many of the issues they have. But, nowadays, we take rapid information processing for granted—we can harness its power to manage and predict the way cities work.

Chinese firms have become particularly proficient in digital innovation. You see names like Alibaba and Tencent taking the lead in business news. As China builds future cities, there is a huge opportunity for digitization and technology to drive innovation.

China certainly has big plans; the most rapid urban development in human history has occurred where the Pearl River meets the South China Sea. As recently as 1979, the Pearl River Delta was systematically converted from mainly agricultural land into a manufacturing powerhouse. It is also home to nearly 70 million people and delivers an eighth of China’s GDP. More recently, it’s added high-tech aspirations on a major scale.

Putting people at the center

Above everything else, cities are about people. It's easy to forget the residents when we develop systems for infrastructure and business. Therefore, it is essential that future cities are designed in a people-centric way. It keeps SKT top of mind: serving people’s lives better, keeping people at the center of the massive revolution to make cities smarter, and treating inequality and poverty.

In planning future cities, we need up-to-date technology to make them smart and equally accessible. What are the elements for achieving this?

Four types of technology are combined to deliver future cities, so data is processed in four distinct layers:

1. The sensory layer

Smart cities need to collect vast amounts of data. This is the sensory layer of the city. Automatic sensors will capture much of the data, and many of these will interact with hardware such as domestic appliances and traffic signals, becoming part of the Internet of Things (IoT).

2. The communication layer

Sensors give us lots of data. To collect and analyze it, you need plenty of communication infrastructure in your digital systems. These act like the nervous system of future cities, responsible for data delivery and exchange. Similar to the conditioned reflexes of the human body, it can also allow rapid reactions and reduce the workload of the next layer.

With the business application of 5G technology, the speed of data exchange could reach 100 times faster than 4G. This makes artificial intelligence (AI) possible and the formation of the initial AIoT (AI and IoT) system. Edge computing (EC) in this layer can identify simple, everyday tasks, analyze, and send decisions and solutions via the sensory layer. Many Chinese cities have upgraded their communication infrastructure and are well-positioned to use it to develop truly smart cities. Only the most valuable data and complex tasks will be sent to the third layer.

3. The applications layer

Once you've gathered data and can access it, you must put it to work. This is the cloud and the data center—made up of all the apps and other software that help make sense of information and use it to manage things. It’s the brain of future cities. It swallows the big data from the first two layers, supported by supercomputing. This layer helps turn the data into useful information to guide decisions that improve quality of life.

4. The shield layer

We need to be careful about how we use data, however. There must be a shield layer around personal data so that it's not misused, and privacy is protected. This needs to include verification through blockchain or similar technology.

Each city will be unique in its character and appearance

No two future cities will look the same. Developing these cities is task-specific and multi-sectoral. Yet the technology and structure used in the building blocks will be identical. If you open up the arteries of a smart city, there will be a familiar flow of data.

In a traditional city, the principal components are isolated. As a result, each critical aspect, such as transport and traffic control, construction and the energy system, and health are all confined to their own, isolated systems. Within a smart city, the rapid development of information technology and digitization means that the separate components have the opportunity to become interconnected. This allows quicker and better decision-making to raise people’s standard of living.

To ensure that data is collected, managed, and used efficiently, it’s important to have protocols and standards that are accessible to developers and others for planning. Without unified standards, each smart city will be an isolated ‘island’ and data will not flow between them because portals and protocols will be incompatible.

While there are many international standards already in place, they will need to evolve alongside technology. China has a particularly vital role to play in this with its massive program of new city development.

How will all this data help people?

In many potential ways. Important features for future cities include:

Smart energy

Cities require huge amounts of energy, so smart energy systems are an excellent place to start. Making a grid system that can work with microgeneration, battery storage, and traditional power plants will help improve efficiency and cut carbon emissions. A system that helps manage demand and balances generation could help facilitate a move to a hydrogen society.

Another area for smart energy is within buildings. Smart meters and AI within homes and businesses can control appliances to ensure a customized, comfortable living environment and reduced energy cost.

There are already examples of best practices to help inform China’s progress. The UK’s comparative strength in smart energy is in its trading, peak shifting, asset management, and novel finance mechanisms. UK companies are demonstrating know-how in designing smart energy offerings that can be licensed and replicated in mature markets. There are also new business models for rapid decarbonization.


Transport is another area ripe for smart data systems. In the future, a city with the right sensors and information will have a management system to help make integrated and local decisions on where to route trains, trams, and other vehicles. It could also help people to walk and cycle the most effective routes, avoiding noise and air pollution hotspots.

For fast and effective decision-making, it may be necessary to use artificial intelligence (AI) techniques. Artificial intelligence requires vast amounts of data, so is ideally suited to the complex systems that smart cities embody.

UK companies are already providing mobility expertise that could help China. This entails new approaches to how people use their private cars and find parking (driving around looking to park generates lots of CO2 emissions), along with improving rail and bus systems. There’s also expertise in designing viable cycling and pedestrian areas away from highways to help connect people and their local neighborhoods.


A final, particularly important example of how smart systems could improve lives is in healthcare. With IoT technologies, doctors could be alerted to a patient’s problems and read their data to intervene early and avoid potential crises. Individuals could also have better information for their self-care and rapid access to the services they need.

Innovative approaches to using cloud-based clinical software to help deliver health interventions and monitoring are already in action within UK businesses. These could benefit to partners promoting healthcare in China.

Another approach offered from the UK is interactive street furniture that includes mechanisms to monitor air pollution and noise to impact health positively.

Designed for the well-being of residents

China’s expertise and experience in technology, big data, and hardware put the country at risk of prioritizing these smart-city aspects over human requirements. The UK has a longstanding background in citizen engagement methods and practical knowledge of how to keep people’s interests at the forefront of urban development. UK businesses can offer ways to merge social needs and digital capabilities so that innovations are tailored to suit the greater good. Nesta, for example, is an organization that promotes people-centered and evidence-based solutions for planning and developing smart cities.

As China continues developing its smart cities, there is little doubt that it will adopt and drive innovation. It faces significant challenges—due to its population—but also a wealth of opportunities that will come from embracing technology. In effect, we have the chance to use these smart technologies and data to connect different components within smart cities, serve society better, and improve lives.

Go to ICF
Meet the author
  1. Enrui Zhang, Senior Manager, Energy and Low Carbon Specialist

    Enrui is an expert on energy policies and investment barriers for a low-carbon economy. View bio

Sign up to get our latest climate insights