Over the last three decades, China has opened up and reformed. Cities have undergone unprecedented change. Fishing villages that once housed 5,000 people now house over 10 million.

This story is common across most industrial cities in China today. As they go through unprecedented levels of growth in population, with some as high as a 6,000% increase, these cities have learnt, grown and adapted to their challenges through leveraging technology and fostering innovation.

Daniel Zhou, President of Enterprise BG of the Southern Pacific Region at Huawei, shares with GovInsider some of the cities that have undergone this transformation, and the lessons ASEAN can take away from them.

Learning from China

An important first lesson for ASEAN, Zhou points out, is creating an ecosystem of government, private sector and citizens. In today’s age of specialisation, it is unlikely for one company or government to have all the solutions.

Instead, various companies and government can work together in an ecosystem to solve problems, he says. Governments working with the private sector to solve various challenges in the city can help create jobs and foster innovation in the city. Creating an ecosystem of solution providers creates a pool of experts to bank on when problems arise as well.

Building an open platform is one way of creating this ecosystem, Zhou highlights. Most of the time, no single company works on a project with the government, he points out. An open operating system – that any company can come in and plug into – is best suited to solving problems, he continues.


“Governments should redefine their position as a digital transformation enabler, which means they use the best of their resources to provide a platform.”

Another key factor in building smart cities is planning for the long term, Zhou says. “Unlike other projects where we stop at a certain point of the year, it’s ongoing, so planning a project is also important,” he notes. For instance, when making the decision to use IoT devices, “you have plenty of choice today, but to select which one is more suitable for you, it has to be a more long-term evolution”.

ASEAN infrastructure spending has increased in the last couple of years substantially, but the emphasis should also be on digital infrastructure, notes Zhou. “AI cannot run on a very poor network – it’s simply not possible,” he points out.

Similarly, meeting power demand in the ASEAN region can take up to US$500 billion. With high power costs, building data centres will be difficult in the region, Zhou says. “Without data centres, there’s no cloud business, and if there’s no cloud business, there’s no AI as well,” he remarks.

Improving public safety

Shenzhen, the country’s wealthiest city and its first special economic zone, sees a massive movement of people on a daily basis. “Shenzhen is a very big migrant city; there are more than 15 million people,” notes Zhou. In 2015, Shenzhen 116.3 million tourists visited Shenzhen.

As people flock in and out of the city, the local police department has found it difficult to keep crime at bay, Zhou says. With video facial recognition and the use of Artificial Intelligence, the police can now easily track criminals and enhance public safety, he points out.

The city is pooling data from various cameras and systems across different agencies onto a central monitoring platform, he says. The AI algorithm crunches through these data to track potential suspects. Last year, a kidnapped three-year-old boy was found two seconds after an AI search through live security camera footage in Shenzhen, reported Xinhua.

Reducing pollution

Shandong province is one of China’s largest industrial hubs, and curbing pollution is a difficult feat for public officials. However, Weifang, a northern city in the region is now using big data and technology to improve citizens’ quality of life.

The city is putting a million sensors to use to detect useful information that is fed back to increase people’s welfare. Plug-and-play street lamps monitor the city’s lighting system in real-time, adjust brightness automatically, and detect faults.

IoT sensors in the city help to monitor air pollution, and public utility data such as availability of parking areas, he adds.

Cutting down wait time

China’s commercial capital, Shanghai, is looking to improve the process for setting up businesses. Currently, the process to apply for a company registration usually takes one applicant multiple trips to different agencies and at least a month.

Today, with an integrated public service application, the time needed to register companies is cut down to less than an hour, says Zhou. Big data plays a key role in increasing efficiency of services, he adds. With the government cloud app, applicants no longer have to visit various government agencies to apply for permits; instead, they can complete all the required tasks through one single portal.

Here, Huawei helped the Shanghai city government to fast track public service by combining various agency processes. “Government cloud is not simply putting all the resources together, but also with the big data, the most difficult part is how you can change the normal processes of the olden days,” Zhou explains.

As ASEAN grows in this new era of digital technology, there is much it can draw from China’s experience: foster innovation through ecosystems, invest in digital infrastructure, and plan long term.

Image by Thomas DepenbuschCC BY 2.0