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It has been ten years since China first proposed the concept of a smart city. With the commercialization of 5G and development of new technologies like edge computing this year, smart cities are once again stirring up debate.

As one of the first batch of cities to start smart city projects, Beijing was named “the most promising smart city” in a report from The Beijing News’ smart city research institute earlier this year.

Not all citizens will realize the changes brought to their daily lives as the smart city develops. Less than half of the 20 people that TechNode talked to agreed that Beijing is a smart city, while the rest replied “not sure” or “I don’t think so.”

Rita Zeng, the 24-year-old Beijinger who featured in the video, expressed her feelings to TechNode about this topic from an ordinary citizen’s perspective.

AI wake-up call

“I feel that it’s much easier for us to reach out for what we want these days, compared with ten years ago,” said Zeng. “Like with my AI robot, I can listen to music, watch videos, play games, and even order food.”

Beijingers exhibited a high degree of acceptance, even in the early days of artificial intelligence. The city leads the country in terms of smart home device adoption, especially in smart appliances and family health management devices, according to TalkingData’s report.

Double-edged sword

“You do have multiple choices when you need to go out in Beijing, subway, bus, electric scooter and shared bike,” said Zeng. “And I feel that traffic conditions have improved thanks to the city’s big events like the 2008 Olympics. But, it still sucks when you suffer from congestion every day. ”

To make it easier to get around the city, the government set up the Transportation Operations Coordination Center in 2011 as the city’s “transport brain”, responsible for the traffic coordination, emergency handling, data-sharing and providing information.

As of this year, all buses in Beijing have onboard video surveillance and GPS tracking systems, while 18,000 buses are equipped with one-button alarms, according to Beijing Public Transport Corporation.

For fare payments, all Beijing subway lines and bus lines support mobile payments. Passengers can also use apps on their phones to rent bikes or call taxis.

“Yes, you can use your phone to take public transportation. It’s very convenient. But you also have to install several different apps respectively for subway, bus and traffic information,” Zeng said.

Beijing’s public transportation mobile payment system is relatively fragmented. There’s no single integrated app that covers all services. Citizens use the Beijing Public Transport app to take the bus, as well as the Yitongxing app for the subway. Public transport cards also exist in an online form, though they are only compatible with a limited number of NFC-equipped handsets.

“For Beijing, the biggest thing is the traffic problem,” said Ren Zhuoran, a Peking University Ph.D. candidate who is currently working on a smart city research project. “To solve this problem, precise data collection and unblocked data sharing are the main foundations. But since the city government has many different sectors to deal with, it’s very likely to cause data barriers.”

Cashless society

“I use online payments nearly 99% of the time in my daily life. I carry no cash with me because even street stalls support Alipay or Wechat Pay,” Zeng said.

Beijing ranked first in terms of the cashless penetration rate in basic systems and services, according to a report from the State Information Center, Alipay and Xinhua Indices this year. The city is pioneering the use of mobile payments in all different scenarios like public transport, convenience stores, and retail shops. And new payment methods like facial recognition payment are also developing in the city.

Zeng was optimistic regarding possible privacy issues brought by the development of smart cities. “We all know that the internet will collect your data, but we are still using it, right?” She said. “The most important thing is who uses your information for what purpose. It’s the city government’s responsibility to protect our data.”

However, there is no specific legislation in China currently on data use, so the boundaries are still ambiguous.

“Developing more advanced technology to fix the privacy problem caused by the current technology could be a possible solution,” added Ren.

Coco Gao is TechNode's Beijing-based visual reporter. Passionate about producing multimedia content on Chinese tech and industry, she holds a Master degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong....

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