Inside Shanghai’s plans to become the world’s leading digital capital by 2035

By Yun Xuan Poon Justin Tan

Digital public services, building for an ageing population and encouraging innovation are key to its strategy.

Ancient Japanese legend has it that folding a thousand paper cranes would grant you a wish from the gods. Shanghai will offer 1000 digital innovation projects in its aspirations to become the world’s leading digital capital by 2035.

56 of these projects are already in place. One of these is a flood prevention system that collects data from meteorological services, public utilities, and more than 800,000 IoT sensors.

Other projects require just as much good tech and planning to put in place. GovInsider looks at how Shanghai plans to achieve its vision, by bringing public services online, building for an ageing population, and encouraging innovation.

Transforming public services

Shanghai is changing how governments can reach citizens with digital public services.

The arrival of Covid-19 last year prompted an urgent response from the government. The city launched a QR-code app for citizens to complete health declarations at public places such as airports and workplaces, Yong Lu, Vice President at the Shanghai Data Exchange Corporation, told GovInsider.

Employees or visitors simply need to scan a QR code to share their health status with the establishment, making contract tracing a much simpler process.

The app has expanded into other government services. For instance, citizens only have to use this app to access buses and trains on the integrated public transport system.

Additionally, the Pudong area has been piloting a “One Integrated License” system to simplify administrative processes for companies. Before this, a person setting up a convenience store would have to apply for a liquor license or food business license, among other convoluted processes. This system unifies all these applications under a single license.

The government also notifies companies before their license expires. Different companies are classified into respective risk levels to determine how early and how often warnings should be given to them, Song Weihua, Deputy Director of the Shanghai-Pudong New Area District Committee Office said at last year’s Shanghai Municipal Digital Transformation Work Conference.

Bridging the digital divide

Shanghai is stepping up efforts to build a more senior-friendly digital society, as the nation struggles with an ageing population. Last year, it had 10 people above the age of 70 for every 100 working adults. The trend is set to worsen, Reuters reported.

Simple steps can help. Shanghai has launched a taxi-hailing app to cater to seniors, with larger fonts and a simple interface that calls a taxi with one touch, CGTN reported.

Shanghai citizens can also hail a taxi through a kiosk, instead of having to navigate a complicated interface, wrote Shine. This helps the senior generation access the conveniences of living in a digital society.

The city is looking to give citizens more control over their data. It aims to make every citizen a “producer, governor, user and beneficiary of data”, a public document from the Shanghai Municipal Government revealed.

A sandbox for innovation

Shanghai plans to establish a digital playground for budding entrepreneurs. It’s well-placed for it - the city has the highest number of 5G stations in the country, wrote Shanghai Daily.

This high-speed network will be foundational in supporting projects such as Didi Chuxing’s ride-hailing robo-taxi service that was implemented in Shanghai, reported Reuters. These autonomous taxis communicate with installed equipment at traffic junctions, to minimise incidents caused by blind-spots in sensors.

Additionally, the Smart Jing’An district will incorporate more than 500,000 IoT devices into city services, Shanghai Daily reported. These sensors will be implemented in things such as fire alarms or road condition reporting.

Besides building up the physical infrastructure, Shanghai is also moving to support policies that encourage tech innovation.

In a public document sharing the priorities of the Shanghai Municipal Government for urban digital transformation, it explained that the government will strive to eliminate bureaucratic policies to foster innovation. This could signal a greater appetite for market-led innovation, which will direct finances towards the best services and products.

Data security

As Shanghai steps into a new digital age, it recognises the need to prioritise citizen trust.

The government’s purpose in building a smart city is to serve the people, not for commercial gain, Tan Chang, Executive Director of iFlyTek’s Big Data Research Institute explained at the Shanghai Municipal Digital Transformation Work Conference last year. The most important thing is to not cross boundaries, he added.

Shanghai will be raising the level of security to keep the data in their care safe. For example, after extracting key facial data from a photo, databases store encrypted data instead of the original photo. The encrypted data cannot be restored, Tan explained. Conniving hackers would never be able to get their hands on citizens’ private information.

Shanghai is sometimes called the Magic City, but its vision to become the world's leading digital city is more than a series of empty flourishes. It will focus on building accessible and inclusive digital public services, while encouraging innovation and empowering citizens.