16 April 2013 — While the rest of the world is focusing on developing green cities and sustainable housing, China is leading the way. It’s ahead of the pack and we can all learn from what they’re doing over there.

China’s smart cities will be relying heavily on technology, the cloud and the latest in telecommunications.

We have seen some interesting experiments to this end. The New Cities Foundation in China is working with technology company Ericsson and the University of California, Berkeley, to develop smartphone apps that connect travellers who take the same daily route to and from work, allowing them to share relevant, useful information with each other. In other words, this innovative idea uses crowdsourcing to stop traffic jams.

It’s efficient and cost-effective, building a community of commuters who themselves provide solutions to the burdens of daily travel. Real-time information-sharing is great because it can identify where commuters are experiencing problems and at what time of day.

In turn, this provides feedback on routes that need to be better managed by authorities.

They are using Waze and Roadify, two smartphone apps that allow drivers and public transit users respectively to share information in real-time. These apps are based on what the geeks call a “passive contribution model”. How does that work? Simply by driving with the app open on your phone, you passively contribute traffic and other road data helping the system provide other commuters with the optimal route to their destination.

But that is just the beginning. It’s possible to supplement this information with more detailed traffic reports.

The question one may well ask is why can’t we have that here?

Beijing’s government has been using subsidies to create green roofs since the lead up to the 2008 Olympic games. They claim to have added, on average, more than 100,000 square metres of green roofs a year since 2005.

The China Daily reports that 90 cities – yes 90 – have been identified to become smart cities, with fast and effective IT systems driving better traffic management, healthcare and environmental protection. Whatever China does on this scale is massive, much more than anything done in the west.

The Chinese government isn’t doing this on its own, it’s working with business.

For example, IBM  wants to turn the City of Zhenjiang, which sits on the south bank of the lower Yangtze River, into a smarter city, transforming the city’s public transportation system using hardware, software, services and technologies from IBM’s research labs. The plan is to use analytics technologies to manage traffic patterns and over 80 routes across the city and improve the efficiency of its public transportation system while anticipating traffic jams before they happen.

Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province in south-west China was one of IBM’s first Smart City projects with a big focus on food safety, education, and telecommunications, coupled with the plan to make use of an integrated cloud delivery service. It’s a work in progress.

Tianjin is another example. The plan here is to create a real-life sustainable community, spanning 30 kilometres and 350,000 residents – making it one of the smallest cities in China, showcasing the hottest energy saving technologies.

When the Chengdu smart city is up and running, it will have an advanced light rail transit system and varied eco landscapes. These would include a sun-powered solarscape and a greenery clad earthscape. In order to reduce carbon emissions, the residents will be encouraged to use that light rail system. China has pledged that 90 per cent of the traffic there will be using it.

Scientists say Tianjin is a huge urban experiment. It’s probably the largest in the world. For instance, General Motors is using Tianjin to work out how driverless cars can work in traffic. They are road-testing the next generation of vehicles with small urban cars that drive themselves and operate amidst unpredictable drivers, pedestrians and cyclists.

Other interesting green projects for Tianjin include low energy lighting systems from Philips and a rubbish collecting system developed by Swedish company, Envac that sucks the waste through special ducts. Government-owned buildings will be powered by geothermal energy, have shutters that move with the light, in order to keep buildings cool, and heating systems that use solar energy.

Tianjin was a dump three years ago, ruined by chemical pollution from the factories that border it. The Chinese authorities managed to clean-up the site. Now they hope to implement the smart city solution around other sites in the country. Truth be told, there are countless such sites throughout China.

The city of Tianjin is projected to be completed by the end of the decade, after a projected investment of around 250 billion yuan ($A38 billion), part of a joint financial and administrative collaboration between the Chinese and Singaporean governments. Currently, 60 families have already moved in. If successful, Tianjin might be the first of many green, yet cheap and practical, cities in China, quite possibly turning the country around ecologically.

China is using smart cities to reinvent itself. As reported by The Fifth Estate, China is now putting pressure on its banks to provide more green finance.

There’s a reason for this. China is one of the world’s most polluted countries and the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters.

Rapid growth in China has, according to Scientific American, increased China’s pollution by more than half over the past 30 years. Once emitted into the air, key nitrogen pollutants — ammonia and nitrogen oxides — are transformed to secondary pollutants such as ammonium and nitrates, and then washed to Earth by rain and snow. The process, known as nitrogen deposition, does great damage to ecosystems, causing soil acidification, fertilising harmful algal blooms and threatening biodiversity. According to scientists, Beijing has particulate (also known as particle pollution) levels that are 25 times higher than World Health Organisation limits, and the pollution is inflicting a heavy toll on both human health and economic activity. They cite a study by Peking University and Greenpeace published in December showing that air pollution caused 8572 deaths in four of China’s biggest cities last year, and 6.8 billion yuan (A$1.1 billion) in losses. According to this report, Greenpeace projects that, based on 2008 to 2012 reduction rates in particulate-matter concentrations, and given current policy efforts, Beijing will only meet the national air quality standard in 2031. That means it will take even longer for Beijing to meet the World Health Organisation standard, since the current national standard is looser than the international one.

Or as The Economist points out, China is the world’s largest emitter, contributing nearly a quarter of current global emissions. With India it accounted for a whopping 83 per cent of the worldwide increase in carbon emissions in 2000-11.

This is why the new Chinese leadership has pledged to cut emissions and energy use per unit of gross domestic product by at least 3.7 per cent in 2013 and carry out carbon-trading trials. China added 15 gigawatts of wind energy capacity last year and 3 gigawatts of solar. It endorsed targets to add 21 gigawatts of hydroelectric capacity, 18 gigawatts of wind and 10 gigawatts of solar this year. China’s new leaders are taking steps to tackle problems of major bottlenecks in connecting wind and solar farms to the grid. They are also pushing for a surge in small-scale renewable energy production, where ordinary people become suppliers to the grid.

China is looking to smart technology to transform itself from one of the world’s most polluted countries into one of the cleanest and innovative. But the lesson here is that it can only be done with investment from both the Chinese and offshore governments, and from businesses around the world.

It’s something the west can learn from.

Leon Gettler is a freelance business journalist, author and podcaster. He works for a range of publications and produces two podcasts for RMIT every week: Talking Business and Talking Technology. He has an acute interest in the environment, its impact on business and the response of businesses and governments.