Like most people, I’d never heard of Yinchuan before going there.
But the Chinese officials showing me around are eager to promote the capital of Ningxia province, in the north of China as a technical marvel.
And I should pay attention: Yinchuan is intended to serve as the blueprint “smart city” for scores of urban metropolises across China.
It also raises some serious questions about data privacy.
When your face pays
In Yinchuan, your face is your credit card.
On the local buses, facial recognition software has replaced the fare box. Much like a fingerprint can unlock a smartphone, passengers’ faces are linked to their bank accounts, meaning boarding isn’t slowed by passengers fishing for exact change.
Public trash bins that run on solar power and double as compactors, allowing them to increase their capacity five-fold, meanwhile, are being trialed within the city’s Smart Community Project — an occupied “living lab” which acts as a mini-city within the city. The bins send out a signal when they’re full, so garbage collectors know when to empty them.
Grocery shopping is also, potentially, a thing of the past. Residents can order food via an app on their phone and, rather than wait at home for perishables to turn up, they can pick up their shopping at centrally located refrigerated smart lockers.
At the City Hall, holograms — not people — usher in residents. A smattering of QR codes dot the walls, allowing people to get quick answers to frequently asked questions and avoid waiting in line. At a recent job Yinchuan fair, for example, job seekers scanned the codes to get quick information about job openings.
Every interaction a citizen might have with the government — from getting a business license to renewing a passport — takes place here. Many processes that once required face-to-face meetings have been efficiently moved online.
That ethos applies to healthcare, too.
Haodaifu Online is an internet portal that links doctors with patients, providing the latter with remote therapy and prescriptions. The services reduces overcrowding in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries.
Yinchuan’s is one of nearly 200 smart city pilot projects in China.
As the central government tries to move 250 million of its citizens from rural areas into towns and cities by 2050, it is determined to make its urban areas efficient and equipped with the technology to handle such a vast population influx.
To cement its status as a “smart city” leader, Yinchuan has for two years hosted the Smart City In Focus conference, which this year attracted 1,000 delegates from 66 different countries.
A smart city is defined as an urban settlement which marries big data, technology and urban planning, and hints at a future worth of the Jetsons.
“What makes China special is that they’re looking to create a repeatable pattern as to how to build and create and roll out a smart city,” says Carl Piva, vice president of strategic programs at TM Forum, which organized this conference.
“In the West, we world don’t have that sense of ‘rolling out’ like they tend to do.”
At first glance, Yinchuan may not seem the most obvious choice to be a “smart city” leader.
Its population of 1.5 million pales compared to that of Beijing (13 million) and Shanghai (24 million).
Wouldn’t it make more sense to start my making smart already developed cities, where citizens are more likely to benefit and participate?
Piva says not.
“The problem is these cities are already too big,” he says.
A blank canvas like Yinchuan can more flexibly adopt new technologies, and then “attract people that would otherwise have gone to Beijing or Shanghai.”
The city’s grand ambitions are evident in the dozens of shiny — but empty — tower blocks that line the streets.
“They’re empty because they’re planned for new citizens. They are thinking they can organize the technology first, and then move in some citizens, and they will have the city prepared,” says Dr. Igor Calzada, a lecturer and senior policy adviser at the University of Oxford Program for the Future of Cities, who also spoke at the conference.
He’s not convinced by that approach.
“They’re operating with this assumption that all cities should be built from scratch, that you can create this new city and everything is going to work perfectly well from the first day. Cities don’t work like that,” Calzada tells CNN.
“What they’ll see in five years time is how the citizens’ behavior and technology should be connected, and it’s not that easy.”
Data: Boon or curse?
So much of Yinchuan’s potential comes down to data — information gathered about each citizen can make their lives better, is the core philosophy.
Take, for example, the city’s healthcare system.
Peter Sany, president of TM Forum, imagines a world where sensors can, for example, monitor the insulin level on a diabetic patient, and send an alarm if he goes into diabetic shock. Or perhaps a motion detector can determine when an elderly patient suffers a fall and, in turn, alert an emergency response team.
“Look at the economics of it,” says Sany. “The population is getting older, and when you get older, you get sicker. We’re running out of money because of the healthcare system, but this type of technology will reduce that burden on society.”
Though Yinchuan’s healthcare isn’t there yet, that’s the direction it wants to go in.
“Smart cities provide a solution to many inevitable problems of urbanization,” says Baichun. “It was designed for the people, it will work for the people and it will bring benefit to the people.”
But Calzada, for one, is uneasy how so much personal data could be used by the Chinese government.
“Which data is being used? What will it be used for? I don’t know, I’m clueless, and nobody seems interested in going deep into those questions,” he says.
“Some cities seem interested in thinking about the transparency of that data, some are not. Yinchuan is quite new, but no one seems interested in knowing more about how that data will be governed.”