By Craig Holliman

More than half of China’s population now resides in cities. Sustaining growth and improving quality of life for city-dwellers is vital, but urban centers struggle to accommodate this newfound congestion.

That’s where smart cities come in. Kick-started in 2010, the “smart city” designation applies to cities that seek not only to maximize technology to increase efficiency and quality of life, but also to sustain economic growth. Already, 193 cities, chosen by Ministry of Housing and Urban and Rural Development (MOHURD), have committed to the program, eager to be involved in the next generation of urban innovation.

At the forefront of smart city reforms is the use of mobile- and cloud-based systems to help mitigate pollution. For example, in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province, high-speed 4G networks are becoming standard on buses and trains and the city’s app broadcasts bus arrival times, according to a 2014 report by the US-China Business Council. Zhenjiang states that 500,000 commuters now utilize these features daily and that it’s saving 6,700 tons of carbon dioxide and $2.7 million in fuel costs annually by more closely tracking real-time bus routes.

Source: JLL

How foreign companies can contribute

There are numerous opportunities for multinational enterprises to get involved in smart city development, especially for companies with advanced energy efficiency, clean energy and smart solution technologies and products. Cloud-based storage system technology is also invaluable.

“Future smart city development should be a systematic process including urban planning, technology demonstration, strategic enterprises, project investment and financing, and capacity building,” said Ma Li, Senior Program Manager of AmCham China’s Energy Cooperation Program. The group has been actively involved in smart city development. Ma said the size of these projects will vary from single technology deployment, to building city- or region-wide sustainable communities in both China and aboard.

According to a recent Forbes report, $400 billion a year will be spent globally on smart cities by 2020. The best way for AmCham China members to get involved is through pilot cities and projects, as well as through existing bilateral government programs such as the US-China Eco-City Partnership, US-China Energy Efficiency Forum and US-China Renewable Industry Forum. Member companies such as GE, United Technologies, Intel, IBM, Caterpillar, Cummins, Johnson Controls and Honeywell have been active contributors to a variety of smart city programs across China, including Beijing.

IBM has contributed much of its technology and resources to aid Chinese smart cities, particularly in the war on smog. Using their weather predicting technology, IBM is forecasting pollution levels up to three days in advance. These models and maps will soon be able to pinpoint pollution sources to a specific address. IBM also has a foot in maximizing renewable energies by forecasting how much wind or solar energy will be available in the coming days.

AmCham China helps facilitate relationships between member companies and smart city projects by hosting matchmaking events. Earlier this year, a delegation of AmCham China members, including IBM, traveled to Yichang, Hubei province, for one of these matchmaking events, cohosted by the Central China Chapter and Yichang municipal government.

Looking ahead

There are several different labels for smart cities – eco-cities, low-carbon cities, circular economy cities and the newly unveiled sponge cities such as Chengdu, which seek to better utilize rainfall for drinking water. The sky is the limit for what this model can accomplish.

South Korea is building smart cities from the ground up as smart, including Songdo, which has a disposal system that sends trash directly from homes to sewage treatment centers, eliminating the need for garbage trucks, Forbes reports.

Singapore seeks to become the world’s first “smart nation” by addressing problems faced by developed and developing countries alike, such as population density, population aging and healthcare.

A nation as large as China won’t become “smart” overnight, but will gradually evolve to improve the lives of citizens. Many of the projects and reforms are experimental, so further development is crucial to the future success of smart cities nationwide. And it’s not too late to get involved.   

Craig Holliman is a Communications Intern at AmCham China. To learn more about smart cities, contact Ma Li at