What happens when intelligent city systems fail to protect their citizens from the very thing it is designed to do.
“Zhengzhou’s much-hyped smart city systems, which were supposed to help planners with urban management and safety, have come under heavy scrutiny after recent floods wreaked havoc with city infrastructure and caused dozens of deaths,” the South China Morning Post reports.
Before delving into what happened in Zhengzhou’s smart city systems, what makes a smart city?
Smart cities use the Internet of Things (IoT) technology like sensors, information sensing equipment, and positioning system to collect and analyze data to improve public infrastructure services, government service, and urban and social governance to make life and work experiences better and help agriculture and industries to consume less energy.
The article, “How to build a smart city Zhengzhou? “City brain “needs to match smart municipal facilities” reports that in August 2019, the construction of Zhengzhou’s “urban brain” was launched, following significant investments from the government and private entities in digital construction.
The plan was to build Zhengzhou’s digital government and make it a leading city in the national digital economy.
Zhengzhou’s innovative systems installed sensors to monitor infrastructure services, including manhole water levels in real-time, traffic lights according to tidal conditions, and sewage outlets. The article says that data and information collected from these sensors and monitors are fed to the “urban brain,” the report says.
However, Zhengzhou’s smart city system faces scrutiny for failing to prevent the flood disaster, which led to dozens of deaths in the city, including 14 in the local subway and six in the Jingguan road tunnel.
Talking to the South China Morning Post, the Zhengzhou municipality says that an investigation will determine why the smart city systems failed to protect its citizens once they completed all flood drainage and rescue work.
The article says that the city’s real-time flood prevention system “has access to databases from several local bureaus, including big data on meteorology, hydrology and other relevant fields” and the monitoring system for the Jingguang Road Tunnel have “cameras and sensors in the tunnel..could even send alerts via smartphone apps about accidents or impending danger”.
But these intelligent systems are not totally to blame. There are questions surrounding government actions or inactions after receiving multiple alerts from the system.
“Zhengzhou government agencies failed to take action upon receiving system alerts” and “lack of efficiency or coordination among different agencies may have failed to turn system signals into timely public warnings,” the article mentions.
Despite receiving the five red alerts from the Zhengzhou municipal meteorological service, the local government “did not take action to suspend schools or traffic.”
Ge Wenyao, a Shanghai private equity fund partner, criticized the innovative city projects on social media, saying it is “a waste of money and is completely useless.”
What happened in Zhengzhou provides a lesson or two in public governance.
While advances in technology such as the smart city systems can help our lives better, provide us with real-time data to keep us informed and guide decision making, and send warnings and alerts to keep us safe.
Human governance is needed to mobilize agency and citizen actions. Intelligent systems should only be used as a tool to assist in better governance and not as a substitute for it.
Governments still need to exert active leadership, providing clear guidance and messaging using all media types to get through to their residents, especially when there are impending disasters and during and after it has occurred.