When retiree You Yulan began her search for a new home in 2015, her main requirement was that it had to be served by a lift.
“My mother had to be bundled in a blanket and carried down the stairs as the stretcher could not fit her doorway,” the 65-year-old recalled. “That’s when I knew I had to move out of my old apartment, which didn’t have a lift.”
But Madam You, who bought a 92 sq m apartment that year in a new condominium called Future City, discovered that its name was not an empty boast: It provided one vision of how life can be improved by technology and sensors.
Future City is one of 20 smart communities in Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia Hui autonomous region in central China and a city of two million people close to Inner Mongolia.
Some facilities at the condo, such as free Wi-Fi in public spaces and noticeboards that give to-the-minute weather, traffic and bus arrival information, may already be familiar to those living in more wired countries.
But more cutting-edge technologies in daily use here speaks to Yinchuan’s ambition to become the blueprint in China’s goal to become a country of smart cities.
Facial recognition software at the condo autonomously determines if an electronic gate should swing open (for residents), or if security should be alerted (for flagged individuals, such as criminals).
In the condo, a bank of passcode- enabled lockers sits beside refrigerated lockers for perishables, a boon for busy executives.
Around the neighbourhood, solar- powered dustbins flap open when they sense someone nearing, self- compact rubbish when they fill up, and automatically alert the disposal company when they reach capacity.
For Madam You, one feature that has made a big difference is the proliferation of community medical examination clinics around Yinchuan, one of which is within her condo.
For 200 yuan (S$40) a year and a refundable deposit of 980 yuan, she gets a smartphone-sized device that can take 22 different health measurements, ranging from body temperature and heart beat, to blood sugar level and bone density.
The device communicates with an app on her smartphone, and results are sent to the cloud, where healthcare professionals monitor the data.
“This way, residents take charge of their own health, and the app lets them know if, say, their blood pressure is higher than the normal range for their age group,” said Ms Ma Ting, a clinician at the centre.
Less tech-savvy or more squeamish residents – some tests require taking one’s own blood sample – can visit the clinic to get help.
“I’m afraid of needles but I need to track my blood sugar level, so I come down to the clinic (to have my blood taken) three times a week,” said Madam You. “I no longer have to travel almost an hour to the hospital just for this test.”
Even as building smarter communities is a key plank of Yinchuan’s smart city plans – it plans to outfit another 480 neighbourhoods (about one-quarter of the city) with such features by the end of this year – that is only half of the story.
The other half stands at a 105ha zone in the north of the city that has become a one-stop centre for residents who need to access any kind of government service.
At the five-storey Citizens’ Hall, an average of 14,000 people pass through its doors daily to renew their passport or driving licence, start a business or get documents notarised, among other things.
A display case shows how far Yin- chuan has come: It contains 69 government stamps from 26 separate departments that have since been replaced by a single approval seal.
The centre, officially opened in 2015, has integrated under one roof the functions of 30 different offices from around the city that were responsible for some 400 administrative approvals and public services.
“The idea behind the centre is to streamline all kinds of government functions and approvals to better serve our residents,” said Yinchuan vice-mayor Guo Baichun, noting that the process to get a new business approved has been cut from five departments and 25 days to one business day – the fastest in China.
A short walk away is the municipal government’s command centre, which serves as the brain making sense of the vast array of sensors installed around the city, including over 30,000 security cameras. And it is co-located with a call centre that has, since December last year, combined 55 separate government hotlines into a single number.
This building is where the vast amount of data collected every minute – and processed at a data centre in another part of the city – is analysed and interpreted by human operators, who can decide how to, for instance, direct emergency personnel and commandeer traffic lights when a major accident happens.
The thousands of sensors and cameras, coupled with updated laws, have changed civic behaviour for the better. This reporter noticed that taxi and private-hire drivers here better enforce seatbelt use, something lacking even in first-tier cities such as Beijing. It is the swift result of a law that took effect in April and issues fines and demerit points for drivers caught on road cameras speaking on their phone or not belting up.
“The new cameras are no joke as they are much more effective than the traffic police of the past,” said Didi driver Ma Hui, 40.
All these innovations were recognised by the central government in March, when Yinchuan was named the best managed of provincial- level smart cities in China.
So how did Yinchuan, a small, third-tier city – and just one among some 300 in China with smart city projects – rise to the top of the heap?
Mr Guo said two important ingredients were finding a suitable partner with the technology expertise, and then creating a healthy business model suitable for a long-term project such as this.
Yinchuan teamed up with Chinese tech giant ZTE, which has experience managing smart cities and similar projects in 40 countries – and the partnership has proved to be a successful one.
Big push for smart cities as China’s middle class grows
Rapid urbanisation in China since the 1990s has seen more than 322 million people – almost equal to the total population of the United States – move from countryside to city in the past 15 years.
To make its cities more efficient and liveable, China began building ad-hoc smart city projects in 2010. Three years later, there were more than 180 such projects in motion, according to Beijing-based research firm CCID Consulting.
In 2013, official policymaking on smart cities began to take shape when the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued its first list of national pilot smart cities.
The following year, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) issued three guidance notices that aimed to speed up and promote the sustainable development of smart cities.
In the same year (2014), eight ministries including the NDRC and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology formed a working group to promote smart city projects.
It produced a standardisation blueprint, and proposed that a critical mass of model smart cities be built by 2020 whose “aggregation and radiation effects” would have a domino effect across China.
With this concerted push from the top, there are today 290 cities that have initiated smart city projects, with some 300 others having inked project agreements, the Economic Information Daily said in April.
This push from Beijing could not have come sooner: the Chinese middle class was projected to balloon from 14 per cent of the urban population in 2012 to 56 per cent within a decade, according to consultancy firm McKinsey.
This wealthy middle class would demand a high standard of city living without urban ills such as gridlock, pollution and rubbish problems even as China’s cities became more dense, said analysts.
Since President Xi Jinping took office in 2013, and made the building of a moderately prosperous society one of his “Four Comprehensives” goals in 2014, he has also pushed cities such as Shanghai and the upcoming Xiongan New Area to make good use of technologies like big data to improve city administration.