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New Infrastructure and Technologies Shape Cities

By Wu Zhiqiang, Academician, the Chinese Academy of Engineering; and former Vice President, Tongji University

New infrastructure — more specifically, the use of the latest technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and 5G — is critical in China's construction and development of Smart Cities. It is used to implement intelligent operations and supports many of the city's facilities. Meanwhile, there are five major factors affecting urban technology that could have a profound impact on economic and social changes in cities.

Five Factors Dictate the Urban Technology of the Future

Data-Based Patterns: Accurately Understanding and Mastering Urbanization and City Development

In the next 15 years or so, there will be a surge in the theoretical and technological progress of research on urban patterns. According to one such study — on global urbanization patterns — the output per capita can be increased three-fold when rural agricultural workers become urban residents. However, labor productivity in developed countries didn't start to increase until the urbanization rate was between 66% and 80%. What's more, it's only the cities that have undergone intellectual urbanization — a shift from physical labor to intellectual labor, which features both innovation and creativity — that can establish themselves as modern and innovative societies. Otherwise, they will enter a physical urbanization stage, which is characterized by a great deal of manual labor being done in urban areas.

Urban development pattern research results will provide a more accurate basis to guide urban development and support the modernization of the city governance system and capabilities.

Shifts in the Population Structure Lead to Changes in Urban Residents' Demands

Many countries face — or are about to face — a major demographic challenge: an aging society. The United Nations (UN) defines an aging society as a country or region in which the share of the population aged over 65 exceeds 7% of the total population. In many countries and regions, senior citizens account for an increasingly larger proportion of the population, while the proportion of children continues to fall.

Because of advances in medical technology, people are leading healthier lives, and the average life expectancy has increased globally over the past 50 years. Meanwhile, birth rates have plummeted, particularly in developed and emerging countries. According to the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs, this trend will lead to the number of people aged over 65 accounting for about 20–30% of the total populations of many countries by 2060.

Demographic shifts such as these will become important factors in the coming decades, leading to a series of profound changes. Inevitably, as different demands — in terms of both urban construction and residents' needs — develop and the digital divide is bridged, new challenges will emerge.

People Expect to Live Longer and Healthier Lives

In the future, the average life expectancy will be higher. People are living much longer than they did 200 years ago, because of the invention and widespread use of antibiotics. In the 21st century, with the rapid development of life sciences — including organ replacement, new drugs, and other pharmaceutical advances — we will be able to extend the human lifespan.

Broadly speaking, there are five digital technologies that will greatly influence the world in the foreseeable future: big data, AI, mobile Internet, cloud computing, and blockchain. Integrated into various industries, these five technologies will enable cities to develop a symbiotic relationship between the physical and the digital world, and enable major changes in urban planning, construction, and management.

A major revolution will take place in the energy field. According to Total — the multinational oil and gas company — the total volume of energy consumption worldwide has been increasing by 2.5% each year since 2017. By 2060, the total global energy consumption will have increased five-fold or six-fold from its current level. In September 2020, China announced that it would aim for its carbon emissions to peak by 2030 and seek to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Countries all over the world now compete with each other in digital city construction. In the next 40 years, many countries will try to be the first to achieve carbon neutrality. This means it is critically important to explore energy conservation and emission reduction during digital city construction.

Five Future Breakthroughs in Urban Technology

City development is a process of continuous iteration and evolution. In the future, there will be five major breakthroughs in urban technology. By accelerating the intelligent upgrade of the city, we will develop Intelligent Twins of the cities — digital representations of the physical cities that will provide insight into how the cities can be developed.

Intelligence Throughout the Lifecycle of Autonomous Cities

In the past, the order of the urban construction stages was: plan, creation, expert evaluation, optimization, and construction. Now, with digital technologies, we can build on these steps to refine the process.

Before plan creation, there is data perception. In between these two stages, there are steps such as learning, deduction, and data analysis. Through these steps, we can simulate how the city develops and changes, and then determine which parts need to be eliminated and which parts require intervention.

After construction, supervision can be added, which monitors how everything performs after construction and collects relevant data. Based on the feedback from supervision, the city construction model is continuously iterated, and then the whole process starts again from data perception, forming a complete lifecycle. In the future, all the preceding steps will be connected, to achieve comprehensive intelligence throughout the lifecycle of autonomous cities.

Intelligent Platforms Emerge

By identifying the models of 13,800 cities worldwide, we can construct the sequence of the data information of each square kilometer in a city. After classification at different levels, deep learning is performed. Ultimately, seven different types of city models will be produced. Based on the large-scale computing on the intelligent platform, when you input the data of a city (about things such as land area and population), AI can trace that city's development history and determine its development trend. In this way, we can get an understanding of both the past and the future.

The full-lifecycle iterative evolution of autonomous cities

Emotional Perception in Autonomous Cities

In the future, cities will optimize their operations by proactively sensing people's emotions. Because cities are built by the people for the people, urban development must be people-centric, and people's emotions should be a key basis for decision-making in urban administration.

With this thinking in mind, in 2018, I proposed the concept of 'City EQ.' Essentially, a city's emotional quotient is its ability to understand and meet the emotional needs and wants of its residents. Based on this concept, our team has initiated a series of projects, including constructing a theoretical architecture and a mathematical model.

We have been tracking 'emotional data' — such as emotional words or phrases posted on social media — of citizens in first-tier cities across the country. For example, among the 1822 items of emotional data from Shanghai residents, there are more than 1300 uses of positive words and phrases, such as "hero," "sweet," "grateful," and "central city," while very few negative words — for example, "chaos," "mean," "angry," "contempt," and "scolding" — have been used.

In the future, perceiving the emotions of citizens will become increasingly important, because it can help adjust the city operations to better serve people's needs.

Reimagining the Concept of 'Home' in Autonomous Cities

The ternary structure of 'home' — that is, a home consists of three aspects: physical, social, and digital — in autonomous cities will become increasingly significant. Home will become an increasingly important concept in urban development in the future, with 'home' becoming a five-minute living area: residents will be able to get everything they need within a five-minute travel distance from their home.

Digital technologies will build a material, social, and digital world within the scope of the home concept and make the five-minute living area a smart community, so the digital architecture of home will be instrumental in the future.

Comprehensive Construction of Intelligent Infrastructure for Autonomous Cities

The intelligent infrastructure system for autonomous cities will be a priority. In the next 15 years, existing urban infrastructure — including sewage, water, and gas pipes — will be digitalized and upgraded. Meanwhile, the layout, construction, Operations and Maintenance (O&M), and governance of networks will become fully intelligent.

Five Logical Principles for Smart New Infrastructure

As new infrastructure has been prioritized, it has triggered a new development trend in China. In 2018, China proposed a 'new infrastructure' concept and emphasized accelerating the commercial use of 5G and advancing the construction of new infrastructure such as AI, industrial Internet, and Internet of Things (IoT). Meanwhile, several other countries have also launched initiatives to develop new infrastructure. For example, South Korea's 'U-City Plan,' Japan's 'Smart Society 5.0,' and Singapore's 'Smart Nation 2025.' In fact, the entire world is focusing on new digital technologies, with many countries echoing China's new infrastructure strategy. To realize such strategies and systematically develop new infrastructure, we need to comply with five principles.

People-Oriented

New infrastructure must be people-oriented, focused on their feelings and needs. To guide the implementation of Smart City projects, we must thoroughly analyze people's most urgent needs.

People used to think that it was easy to build a new city: Consensus was that all was needed was to start from scratch using advanced technologies. However, none of the new cities constructed using this approach were particularly well built.

Eventually, city planners learned that it was actually easier and more effective to upgrade old cities. This is because old cities typically have many permanent residents, and the parties responsible for developing the cities can accurately sense people's actual needs, which facilitates the construction process, and it means the residents can enjoy the benefits of the Smart City within a relatively short time period.

Intelligence-Based

Generally, infrastructure includes energy, water, sanitation, transportation, communications, and disaster prevention, which are the six systems of the city construction system. It is important to ensure that these systems and the facilities that support them are intelligence-based.

Infrastructure-Oriented

In the future, intelligent technologies will be embedded in infrastructure. In fact, many modern technologies can already be used to test and analyze patterns. However, there is still a long way to go to materialize new concepts and theories into next-generation infrastructure.

Node-Based

Physical space is required for government management, commercial operations, and user services. Since mechanization began in 1785, numerous new nodes have emerged in cities. With many factories and chimneys built, cities began to enter the phase of industrialization.

After steam engines were invented, we built railway stations. As the automobile industry advanced, parking lots were built everywhere. The development of the aviation industry drove the popularization of airports. As biotechnology came into being, warehouses were built to store biological samples and other materials needed for research into genetics. Now, with AI and other digital technologies, new spatial nodes are being constructed in cities to store and compute a large amount of data. The evolution of such technologies has always influenced — and is still influencing — cities around the globe. In response to this technological evolution, more spatial nodes will emerge in cities.

Ecosystem-Oriented

To be ecosystem-oriented, we must ensure that different systems in the city are interconnected and can coordinate themselves. Clearly, without an overall ecosystem, the sustainable development of Smart Cities is impossible. The construction of such an ecosystem requires collaboration among Smart City planning groups, enterprises, and urban groups around the world — including collaboration between organizations that can provide technologies and those that can provide funds as well as between virtual and physical resources — to build, co-create, co-govern, and share smart scenarios.

Let's seize the opportunities that this new infrastructure brings and work together to create a better tomorrow, with smarter cities that meet the emotional wants and needs of those who matter most: their citizens.

Expert Insight

Integrated into various industries, five key technologies — big data, AI, mobile Internet, cloud computing, and blockchain — will drive cities to develop a symbiotic relationship between the physical world and the digital world, ultimately leading to major changes in urban planning, construction, and management.
— Wu Zhiqiang, Academician, the Chinese Academy of Engineering; and former Vice President, Tongji University

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Issue 31 — Digital Government

Building Smart Cities that Provide a Sense of Security,Belonging, and Happiness

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