The global race is on to build ‘City Brains’

Prediction by Geoff Mulgan, Eva Grobbink and Vincent Straub: “The USSR’s launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1958 was a major psychological blow to the United States. The US had believed it was technologically far ahead of its rival, but was confronted with proof that the USSR was pulling ahead in some fields. After a bout of soul-searching the country responded with extraordinary vigour, massively increasing investment in space technologies and promising to put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s.

In 2019, China’s success in smart cities could prompt a similar “Sputnik Moment” for the rest of the world. It may not be as dramatic as that of 1958. But unlike beeping satellites and Moon landings, it could be coming to a town near you….

The concept of a “smart city” has been around for several decades, often associated with hype, grandiose failures, and an overemphasis on hardware rather than people (Nesta has previously written on how we can rethink smart cities and ensure digital innovation realises the potential of technology and people). But various technologies are now coming of age which bring the vision of a smart city closer to fruition. China is in the forefront, investing heavily in sensors and infrastructures, and its ET City Brain project shows just how far the country’s thinking has progressed.

First launched in September 2016, ET City Brain is a collaboration between Chinese technology giant Alibaba and several cities. It was first trialled in Hangzhou, the hometown of Alibaba’s executive chairman, Jack Ma, but has since expanded to other Chinese cities. Earlier this year, Kuala Lumpurbecame the first city outside of China to import the ET City Brain model.

The ET City Brain system gathers large amounts of data (including logs, videos, and data stream) from sensors. These are then processed by algorithms in supercomputers and fed back into control centres around the city for administrators to act on—in some cases, automation means the system works without any human intervention at all.

So far, the project has been used to monitor congestion in Hangzhou, improve the response of emergency services in Guangzhou, and detect traffic accidents in Suzhou. In Hangzhou, Alibaba was given control of 104 traffic light junctions in the city’s Xiaoshan district and tasked with managing traffic flows. By combining mass video surveillance with live data from public transportation systems, ET City Brain was able to autonomously change traffic lights so that emergency vehicles could travel to accident scenes without interruption. As a result, arrival times for ambulances improved by 49 percent….(More)”.