Lasers and LED light up skyscrapers of Shenzhen's Futian CBD. Photo: Xinhua

The affluent Chinese tech hub of Shenzhen is a city now hooked on cars. It has 3.4 million vehicles on its roads on any given day, in a built-up area of 900 square kilometers.

But a long tailback of cars is becoming a sight hard to spot even on the city’s main thoroughfares during rush hours, and what drivers and riders may be unaware of is that their smooth journeys have everything to do with an information and communication technology (ICT) platform capable of crunching 700 million data points per day.

Huawei is one of many partners helping traffic police in its home city run a tight ship with a well-oiled response and command chain, part of a broader “smart city” initiative to grease the wheels in Shenzhen.

In Longgang district, home to the tech behemoth’s corporate campus, a tailor-made administrative assessment and approval system is cutting red tape and streamlining more than 700 types of approval and adjudication procedures, slashing average processing time by 50%.

Trips around Shenzhen have become smoother despite the city having 3.4 million vehicles on its roads. Photo: Weibo via VCG
An overview of Shenzhen Airport’s new terminal building. Photo: Handout

At Shenzhen Airport, which now handles 50 million passengers a year, Huawei’s “smart” solution is saving flyers 15% of their time normally spent waiting in queues, because it uses facial image-based access control and big data analytics to reduce the need for manual passenger identification.

Outside, around the tarmac, “smart” ground lighting and aircraft path planning supported by Huawei’s IoT technology expedite the movement of jets for about 1,000 flights a day in and out of the city. This has cut the average time from landing to passenger unloading by 20% to about 15 minutes.

By 2025, it has been predicted that there will be 27 megacities worldwide with a population of 10 million or more, and among them, Shenzhen is, for Huawei, a great model of efficient management of traffic and transportation networks for a city of 21 million residents.

Huawei blow-up

China’s tech giant Huawei has been in the news almost constantly this year – at the center of a huge trade dispute with the United States, and targeted by the US Justice Department for alleged bank fraud, technology theft, and misleading the US government about its business in Iran.

Many countries have alleged that the company’s products may deliberately contain “security holes” that the Chinese government could use for espionage. This has led to a range of states – the US and some of its allies – to ban Huawei from the rollout of 5G networks in their countries. The impact on Huawei has been severe, so much so that it was the subject of talks at a recent meeting of Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping in Japan.

Given these concerns, Huawei agreed to host Asia Times for a visit to its headquarters in Shenzhen and a closer look at the company and some of the work it’s doing there and in other cities around the world.

ICT infrastructure

Edwin Diender, chief digital transformation officer for Huawei Enterprise, explained Huawei’s smart-city projects. He said the underlying ICT infrastructure will be critical to addressing the plethora of challenges arising from the continuous flow of people into urban centers as well as the expansion of major cities.

The key to becoming “smart” is combining open technology infrastructure with a unified platform that can keep up with the relentless supply of data from diverse subsystems and in various data formats.

Edwin Diender, chief digital transformation officer at Huawei Enterprise.

Based on 30 years of ICT expertise, Huawei identifies cloud, full-stack, all-scenario AI portfolio, IoT, big data and wireless technology as its areas of strength to make a city “smart”.

Huawei cooperates in an open ecosystem with more than 400 global partners – including SAP, Accenture, Schindler, General Electric, Honeywell, etc – with a presence across 700 cities across the globe.

“Our view is that the ‘smart city’ concept is more about developing an ever-broader platform to support a wide range of initiatives, to crowd in the benefits of greater inclusion, job creation, socioeconomic growth and effective and efficient operations as the hallmarks of smart societies,” Diender said.

Huawei has a “smart city” hierarchy, with an Intelligent Operation Center (IOC) which it calls the “brain and nerve system” aggregating and sharing data across city agencies under open and configurable architecture. The IOC provides a unified perspective for city leaders to respond to fast-changing events, prevent accidents and improve efficiency in the daily management of a city, it says.

Legions of sensors and cameras in a city are regarded as ‘peripheral nerves’ that aid ubiquitous connectivity, firing data through the company’s IoT technology and broadband networks as people connect to applications and ‘things’.

A 5G-based, 4K ultra-high-definition live-streaming of runway operations at Shenzhen Airport is part of Huawei’s ‘smart’ airport cooperation. Photo: Handout

“The impact of ‘smart’ cities, and specifically the IOC, is significant. In Shenzhen, the municipal government has access to a large amount of cameras, generating huge volumes of data, day in and day out. All these images can’t be checked manually, so cloud-based intelligent video analytics becomes essential in supporting the city’s management efficiency and daily operations,” Diender said.

For some people in the West, the use of facial recognition technology and an abundance of CCTV cameras can seem creepy, invasive or unnecessary – unless there is an obvious need for serious security precautions. But, for people in China and other parts of the world troubled perhaps by crime or security concerns, there seems to be greater recognition and acceptance that these systems are the way of the future, and, that they may be able to offer greater ease and convenience, as well as heightened security.

Beyond Shenzhen

Huawei says that its “smart city” technology is being trialed in more than 160 cities across 40 countries, from Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya, Rustenburg in South Africa to Duisburg in Germany. The conglomerate also gave technical support for the 5G network launched in Monaco this week. The principality and gaming hub on the French coast of the Mediterranean became the first nation in Europe to do this.

Huawei also runs 14 OpenLabs and 36 Joint Innovation Centers across the globe to promote joint research and development.

Despite this, the firm’s foray into cities overseas has sometimes been hampered by security concerns and suspicion, for the reasons outlined above.

However, in Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory in Australia and a friendship city with Shenzhen, officials are rolling out the country’s first “smart-city” applications that replicate Huawei’s system to “keep cities safe”. Officials from Darwin traveled to China in May to attend a “smart city” symposium co-hosted by Huawei and Shenzhen’s municipal authorities.

Darwin Mayor Kon Vatskalis told the Australian Broadcasting Corp that concerns over privacy and data security “had been overblown” by fearmongering and claims that people in Darwin would end up living in a “surveillance city”.

“As for the conspiracy theorists, I’ll say once again, [if you worry about privacy] don’t get a license, give away your credit cards, and get out of Facebook,” Vatskalis said.

Adam Beck, the chief executive of Smart Cities Council Australia, also said that issues of privacy and data security needed to be balanced. “There’s a data governance layer being weaved into projects… There’s no reason we can’t have technology and data deployment that’s best in class, but also respects and ensures that privacy, transparency and security are at the heart of what we do.”

‘Robust scrutiny possible’

In a separate interview, an academic in Hong Kong noted that Huawei had been singled out in the Sino-US trade war amid serious tech rivalry – and was likely to be subject to the same robust scrutinization by local authorities as they would give to Google, Apple, Samsung, Facebook, etc.

Professor Wong Kam-fai, the Associate Dean at the Faculty of Engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said it was a natural strategy for large firms from the mainland like Huawei to leverage any technical edge they may enjoy to expand their business, and expand from smartphones and telecoms gear to “smart-city” solutions beyond their home market.

Smart-city systems were more than just installing CCTV cameras and sensors or collecting data, “but tech is neutral”, he said. “Governments should proactively set up a new set of rules and laws to regulate the industry and allay some people’s concerns when more urban centers jump on the smart-city bandwagon,” Wong said.

He expected that Huawei would receive more oversight from governments given all the sensitivity about the company’s operations.

“If Huawei can still strike deals with foreign governments or firms under these circumstances, then commercial deals should be seen as commercial deals, as respective partners must have done their own assessment and come to the decision to work with Huawei. In that case, no one should be paranoid about the risks or Huawei’s Chinese origin,” he said.

An R&D building on Huawei’s corporate campus in Longgang, Shenzhen. Photo: Asia Times

Huawei’s founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei is adamant that its equipment and gear has no “back door”. He said the company, which is owned by its employees, is willing to sign agreements with all governments to show its goodwill to address security concerns.

Liang Hua, the chairman of Huawei’s board of directors, also told reporters in the UK in May that the company plans to sign “no-spy” agreements with the UK and other countries “to commit ourselves, to commit our equipment to meeting the no-spy, no back-door standards.”

Read more:

Inside Huawei’s huge HQ campus in Shenzhen

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