Smart Urbanism(s): ICTs and Governance in China & Europe

Matteo Tarantino

On November 24, 2016 the Confucius Institute at the University of Geneva hosted a conference and a workshop titled Smart Urbanism(s): ICTs and Governance in China and Europe. The two events brought together scholars from academia, business and public institutions to discuss the increasing reliance on information technology by public and private institutions, both in China and Europe, to address urban issues. The core topics were the use of data production and management, social media and mobile applications as infrastructures for governance, the modeling of urban processes through software and the role and nature of assessment indicators.

The conference and workshop were co-organized by the Confucius Institute, the Centre Universitaire d’Informatique and the Geneva-Tsinghua Initiative of the University of Geneva, which partly sponsored the event. The final roster featured a total of eight speakers.

The event was launched by Giovanna Di Marzo Serugendo from the University of Geneva, who discussed the notion of ‘smart city’ and illustrated some solutions deployed in Switzerland and in France. In discussing these case studies, she insisted in particular on the necessity of careful stakeholder involvement and circular, continuous processes as opposed to one-off interventions.

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The first speaker was LONG Ying from Tsinghua University, who devoted his presentation to the idea of “human-scale urban form”. His participation came on the heels of a public conference titled Smart Urbanism(s): The Chinese and Swiss Experiences Compared which LONG Ying had given the evening before at the University of Geneva, which focused on the evolution of the Chinese approaches to informational urbanism. In the workshop, Long opposed the idea of ‘human-measure city’ to a naïvely technocratic concept of ‘smart city’, while retaining a central role of technology in measuring and designing such a space. Long identified three stages in this project: measuring objects and dimensions; evaluation of performance; and finally, on this basis, spatial intervention. In particular, he insisted on the potential for image analysis to assess and guide urban design. The first case study illustrated the potential of Streetview pictures as data sources, and showed the wealth of information that can be extracted from them: more specifically, the Beijing City Lab (prof. Long’s laboratory) has been developing a ‘green index’ which ‘objectively quantifies the green space in a city.’ The second case study examined how to keep track of the changes in quality of urban space through image analysis, in order to better evaluate, in turn, spatial policies. The final case study highlighted how urban space can be informed by such intangibles as people’s emotions once they are extracted by measuring tools, such as a building in Shanghai which changed color according to the mood of the people around it.

The next speaker, Simone Tosoni from the Catholic University of Milan, continued the thread on how ICTs negotiate the role of citizens in matters of governance (see his presentation here). He discussed the challenges and promises related to the use of mobile apps for fixing issues in the field of urbanism. Such applications elicit citizens to act as sensors, signaling problems (such as broken lamps or litter on the street). By examining cases of similar mobile apps in UK and Italy, he warned against naïve enthusiasm towards the ability of diffused technology to significantly impact upon urban governance. The key challenges, which Tosoni identified in what he called ‘spatial annotation for urban space improvement,’ lie in the need for a pre-existing civic engagement tradition and for the establishment of working relationships with civic institutions, without which such attempts risk exposing users to frustration. In other words, successful experiences appear to be those in which technology integrates traditional forms of political engagement, which consequently rely on relations of trust. In conclusion, he outlined the main problem of incentive structures, namely: what can be ‘given back’ to citizens who invest time, knowledge and commitment in acting as sensors?

SUN Yixian from the Graduate Institute of the University of Geneva concluded the morning session with a presentation on the use of social media in environmental protection efforts in China. He focused on campaigns relative to air pollution, and suggested that the symbolic link between pollution and health has been critical in the success of such campaigns. In the context of the Chinese air quality crisis, the perception of threats to individual well-being was a powerful motivator for citizens to leverage social media and ask for a new air pollution standard. Moreover, these campaigns tended to avoid confrontational approaches towards the central government. Sun also stressed how the trajectory of Chinese social media audiences – who are currently leaving micro-blogging platforms such as Weibo for less public platforms such as Wechat – may be problematic for the future of this kind of campaign, as networks in Wechat are smaller and more internally similar. His insights fueled the discussion about how to motivate citizens to engage with ICTs.

A first round of discussion emerged after these three presentations, focusing on the usefulness and issues of using user-generated data for policymaking, and on how it can be enhanced for this purposes. A connected topic was the variety of tools and competences necessary for the wealth of different data and objectives at hand, and on how to deal with the deluge of data that is generated when citizens respond in significant numbers to the call to engage through technology. Both discussions converged on the need to establish more technically standardized processes for citizens’ involvement. It was underscored how China has been fostering forms of citizen opinions about specific policies, and lately has been pushing institutions to use social media (in particular the microblogging platform Weibo) to establish feedback loops between institutions and citizens. However, that effective consultation is made technically difficult by the scale of China, and new solutions need to be found.

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The afternoon session opened with Matteo Tarantino from the Confucius Institute, who re-examined the question of standardization. The presentation was based on the CHIPOMAP project undergoing at the Institute. Tarantino examined China’s moves towards open information, and he discussed the problems related to the standardization of both pollution thresholds and disclosure measures. The resulting ‘fragmented dataspace’ impacts significantly on policymaking, and forces nongovernmental actors to step in as data curators, i.e. sorting the data to make it usable to the public. Interestingly, this situation is not exclusive to China: many environmental information disclosure efforts in Europe and the US show similar issues. Tarantino concluded by recommending environmental scholars to take technical matters of data seriously, and data scholars to apply their knowledge to environmental matters.

The second afternoon speaker was TAN Bowen from the Chinese environmental NGO Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE). Tan presented one of the projects of the IPE, which involves the Chinese real-estate industry in attempting to produce a whitelist of suppliers of cement, steel and glass (which altogether amount to over 50% of all air emissions in China) using a database of environmental violations that the NGO has been collecting from official sources. He illustrated the difficulties in reaching an agreement with all involved parties, especially because steel and cement industries can retain significant political clout in China. However, Tan stressed how the reliance on official data allowed IPE to ‘borrow authority’ from the government and therefore engage with very powerful actors. He also continued the discussion on incentive structures by outlining the potential of positive reinforcement emerging from the project. The choice to develop a whitelist with ‘good’ suppliers and not a blacklist of ‘bad’ ones worked precisely in this direction. Antagonizing stakeholders here would have worked against the ends of the project.

Next followed the presentation of Bilel Jamoussi from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Dr. Jamoussi presented a circular model of ‘smart sustainability’ which moves from a city-specific definition of ‘smart and sustainable’ and loops back after having achieved political cohesion, designed implementation measures, and put in place assessment and monitoring protocols. To this latter end, Jamoussi illustrated ITU’s own standard to benchmark ‘smart and sustainable cities.’ These indicators are presently used by cities around the world to benchmark their performances towards ‘smartness.’ ITU’s indicator relate to the broad objectives defined by the UN Sustainable Development Goals and identify three main areas for assessment: Economy (measuring how much ICTs, technological and transportation infrastructures and productivity perform in society), Environment (focusing on Energy consumption, environmental management and environment-related infrastructures such as water and green spaces) and Society & Culture (measuring such things as education and social inclusion). Those areas are then broken down into 89 specific indicators. Like Tosoni in the morning, Jamoussi also insisted on the indispensability of trust relations among citizens and institutions to sustain engagement. He stressed how reliance on data can foster collaboration, responsiveness, efficiency, accountability and transparency.

Finally, Raphael Rollier from the Smart City program of the largest telecommunication company in Switzerland, Swisscom, harkened back to the first presentation insofar as it detailed if and how we can measure the livability of a city through information technologies (see his presentation here). If LONG Ying had focused on image processing, Rollier instead illustrated how aggregation of data from mobile phones traffic – the small traces mobile phones leave when connecting to radio bridges – can be used to better inform urban design. Rollier showed how these traces can be (and indeed are) used to model automotive traffic in different Swiss urban contexts, therefore allowing to assess the utility and feasibility of such projects as parking lots. The presentation concluded with an illustration of Swisscom’s own smart city indicators.

A final round of discussion closed the workshop, focused primarily on topics of privacy and control of data flows. Participants debated how much data should be in the hands of public and private institutions, and the reasons behind the amount of trust citizens tend to put into IT companies such as Facebook and Google, who are primarily moved by business logics, and not in their own elected governments. The case was made for a greater involvement of citizens into the design of software tools, and more in general for a strengthening of awareness about the workings of the tools we come to rely upon so massively. This is true not only for citizens but especially for policymakers. Lack of technical knowledge and technical skills, in a world moving towards an ever-increasing interconnection of devices, leads to blind trust – and, therefore, to potential vulnerability.


This contribution was reviewd by Giovanna di Marzo Serugendo.

TARANTINO, Matteo. « Smart Urbanism (s): ICTs and Governance in China & Europe ». In Blog Scientifique de l’Institut Confucius, Université de Genève. Permanent Link: https://ic.unige.ch/?p=916, accessed 06/23/2024.