Closed ecosystems mean limited choices, limited innovation, limited success, writes York Yuekun, President of the Global Government Business Dept, Huawei
For anyone working in the technology sector, phrases like the "Trough of Disillusionment" and "Slope of Enlightenment" have become part of their daily lives. As you likely already know, they come from Gartner’s Hype Cycle, which has served as a reality check for us all as to how justified we are about the health of our products.
Smart cities are no different. Across China, more than 500 cities have unveiled their smart city plans. At Huawei, we believe that in spite of the challenges we have all faced in 2020, smart city development has exited the Trough of Disillusionment and moved into the Slope of Enlightenment stage. That is good news for us all.
That said, it is important that we remain clear eyed as to the myths about smart cities. If we are going to build the cities of the future, we need to be aware of falsehoods and avoid them.
1. A smart city is all about AI and big data and it is these technologies that will rule everything.
I once attended a showcase of AI-assisted traffic control where the presenter claimed the solution was responsible for reducing traffic congestion around a local hospital. A friend of mine works in traffic police in the same city and when I asked him about the effect AI was having on congestion he replied that while it is helping, it did not tell the full story. It was true that traffic on the roads around the hospital was improving, but it was causing bottlenecks in dozens of junctions around the AI network.
AI is not a cure-all in itself. If we continue to take traffic as an example, it cannot be improved merely on an AI expert’s say-so. The technology will play a crucial role but if we want to improve city-wide traffic networks we need scientific rules, properly designed principles and decades of experience in the field. Outsiders need to take advantage of the knowledge of insiders and this applies to any project.
2. Building a smart city is building a big data platform. The more data we have, the better.
It has already become a cliché for smart cities to boast of systems that aggregate billions of data records. But the coronavirus pandemic this year has shown us which kinds of systems helped us all fight the virus, and which did not. Aggregation is less important than the right systems that can successfully connect the right kinds of data.
3. Over-exaggerating or denying the role that a smart city plays in the digital economy.
Both these views miss the point. I’ve recently been reading articles that warn us not to fall into the trap of the internet celebrity economy and fall for newly coined concepts without exploring the detail. Hype has always been able to cloud our judgement and we must be on the defensive to spot it.
That said, software development is a relatively new sector of the manufacturing industry and it requires high-quality development engineers. Building smart cities can support application software development, attract external professionals and create jobs for citizens, further driving the development of a new manufacturing economy.
4. Developing a smart city is like constructing a building with the work concluding on delivery.
Let me give an example to illustrate why this thinking is a problem. A construction firm builds two three-story houses to the same standard. But only one receives ongoing maintenance. That building will continue to look like a high-quality villa whereas the other will look like a slum house after a short amount of time.
A smart city similarly needs proper management to ensure stable operations to keep the architecture stable, the data fresh and the applications up to date. We need to keep smart cities young.
The Slope of Enlightenment is an exciting stage of any technology development but with it comes a new set of challenges. These are challenges we can overcome but we need to identify the most pressing and solve them. In my view, these are the most important we need to deal with:
1. Transform our smart city design from separate planning to unified planning.
Shenzhen, where is Huawei is headquartered, is an exemplar of how to plan and build a smart city. The municipal government worked with all districts and counties in the region when embarking upon the transformation project. That spirit of collaboration is just one of the reasons it ranks first in China’s Smart City Development Level Index.
Shenzhen as a city has a unified smart city development plan but each of its districts has plans of their own. A municipal intelligent operation centre (IOC) is in charge of monitoring the city’s status, commanding emergency services, dealing with incidents and supporting decision making. At a district level, the IOCs run daily public services and government administration affairs. This separation of responsibilities makes running the city more efficient as the district IOCs can run less resource intensive projects, leaving the city-wide IOCs to focus attention on more complex tasks.
Government departments also have their own IOCs, which are connected to the municipal IOC to ensure data connectivity and sharing of information where necessary. IOCs at all levels and across all departments connect seamlessly with one another, bringing together the physical and digital worlds.
2. Shift from massive data aggregation to prioritising data connectivity.
They have a terrible reputation in the modern-day technology world but data silos are not evil. They were the best choice for us when they were first introduced. The world of IT development has gone from pen and paper through spreadsheets to siloed systems and ultimately digital and intelligent platforms.
While we may want to move away from the siloed world, we have to be careful and not go too far. Aggregating data is like merging all bureaus and offices into a single massive department. Imagine if that was your workplace; you couldn’t do your job on a daily basis. It is similarly unrealistic in the digital world.
The key thing is structure – arranging your systems in such a simple way that they generate more value with less data. This is even more important in times when we need dynamic responses, such as today with Covid-19.
I’ll give you an example from Huawei’s experience. During our own digital transformation, we identified a number of data silos. But we first got to work sorting out business process, specifying data owners and data standards, and reforming legacy data based on those standards. This ultimately opened up the silos and those standards now underpin all new data that we record today.
In our work with third parties, we promise not to touch applications or data in order to protect our customers and partners’ interests. But this does not mean we do not understand the worlds of applications or data. Quite the opposite. In fact, many consultancies and enterprises are following our lead in successful and efficient data management, processing and services.
3. Make a smart city essential rather than optional
Building a smart city is arguably the easiest step in its journey. But to make a smart city successful you need to make sure citizens, businesses and public servants use it to its fullest. Sceptics need to become advocates and truly love their new, technologically advanced home.
You also need to be in a state of constant evaluation. City managers need to be conscious of where money is being spent and prioritise the systems that give high return on investment and shut down or merge systems that are underperforming. You also need to spot the weak links in the city system, identify how they can be improved and move as quickly as possible to rectify them.
To make a smart city successful you need to make sure citizens, businesses and public servants use it to its fullest
None of the above can be outsourced. Instead, you need a service system that supports a smart city’s operations, allocate organisational resources, build the necessary service capabilities and carry out continuous assessment to ensure the long-term sustainability of a smart city. As I said above, make sure you have a city of villas and not a city of slums.
This is where insiders become essential. We feel a dedicated department and framework system devoted to operating a smart city is more important that outsourcing it. Third party companies are committed and work hard but they are outside the government system. They are visitors, not citizens.
Digital twins is one of the most exciting smart city technologies today, delivering continuous operations and evolution and one I feel truly opens up a new chapter of smart city construction.
The technology can support a city’s operations in areas including communications, tourism, finance, transportation, government affairs, environmental protection and policing. And these barely scratch the surface.
In China, Huawei technology has enabled digital twins in several cities including Chengdu, Fuzhou, Shenzhen, Nanchang and Changchun, providing citizens with better governance and helping the local economy support thriving businesses.
Digital twins is one of the most exciting smart city technologies today
To give one example, in Pencheng our digital twin comprises a comprehensive 3D visualised map split up into grids, giving the city granular detail about each area. Technologies such as big data, AI, geographic information systems, cloud infrastructure, IoT and 5G power it and draw down a wealth of information. The Pencheng twin can draw upon 100 types of service data and 300,000 channels of video data.
The city has been able to use this data to offer new kinds of digital applications to its local government, helping it to better manage its water network, meteorology and education departments. It has boosted the digital economy by enabling an industrial internet, AI innovation service centre and powers a cloud brain at the Pengcheng laboratory that has developed countless scientific devices.
Of course, Pencheng is just one city. Every city’s needs are different but what excites me about digital twins is it has the intelligence and flexibility to adapt to those needs and solve the problems that I outlined above.
As I noted, the three suggestions for successful smart city deployment are unified planning, data connectivity and continuous operations. And this is at the heart of what we are providing at Huawei, building technical and service solutions for planning, building and operating your smart city; helping the insiders build the city that helps them.
Huawei’s focus has always been customer-centric and our desire is to build open, cooperative ecosystems. Smart city development is not a small job over a finite period of time. It spans years, decades even, and brings far-reaching impacts, many of which we are unaware of today.
But closing ourselves off to this opportunity will not help. Closed ecosystems mean limited choices, limited innovation, limited success. We will almost certainly fall behind if we shut ourselves away from the rest of the world. No matter how the world changes, we must remain open to catch up with it.
Yue Kun, President of the Global Government Business Dept, Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd.
Mr. Yue joined Huawei in 1998 and has served as Deputy General Manager of the Mexico Rep Office, Vice President of the Northern Latin America Region, Vice Director of the Mobile Account Dept, Director of the China Marketing Solution Sales Dept, Director of the Carrier Marketing Dept, and President of the China Enterprise Business Public Security Account Dept.
Mr. Yue was born in 1976 and graduated from Beijing University of Chemical Engineering with a B.S degree in Computer Science and Applications.