By 2050, the UN estimates that there will be 5.3 billion people living in the world's cities — a full 70 percent of the human population. This unprecedented rate of urbanization and its inherent boost in resource consumption has created a need for a new type of city that can be smarter, more ecological, and, ultimately, sustainable long into the future.
"Asia itself has a very young population and a lot of them are moving into urban areas, so how do you support that migration?" posited Laurel Ostefield of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). "(To develop) cities that have breathable air, that are easy to get around, this can't be the infrastructure of 30, 40 years ago. We're all living and experiencing the negative impacts of what can happen when you're not thoughtful about how these infrastructure investments that you're making now are going to impact the world around you as we move ahead."
China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is paving the way for a new iteration of cities throughout Asia. Dubbed "smart cities," new urban areas are being constructed which utilize advanced information and communication technologies (ICT), the internet of things, and other high-tech strategies to integrate municipal services, monitor traffic and pollution, facilitate ecological waste management, streamline public facilities such as hospitals, limit energy usage, and, ultimately, make cities more efficient, clean, and safe.
"When you look at what a smart or digital city gives you, it gives you a lot of services for the citizen and the city managers, it brings cost of running a city down, it can bring electricity consumption down by one-third. The business case on smart cities? They brings costs down," explained Caspar Herzberg, who has worked on some of the world's earliest smart city projects with Cisco and authored the book "Smart Cities, Digital Nations."
In an effort to escape its past urbanization pitfalls and lay the groundwork for a more sustainable future, China has taken the initiative to become the global leader in smart city development, with upwards of 500 pilot projects in the works — a full half of the global total — according to the Xinhua news agency. As big, established cities, such as Beijing, Wuhan, Wuxi, and even more remote areas like Yinchuan and Karamay, install smart city technologies, they are advancing a movement that is rapidly expanding across a major portion of China's urban landscape.
However, just as with sustainable energy, China is taking their expertise in smart city development international, and is currently constructing such innovative urban areas along the routes of the Belt and Road. During the Belt and Road Forum in May 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping touted the benefits of smart city development. "We should advance the development of big data, cloud computing and smart cities to transform them into a 21st Century digital silk road. It is also fundamental for humanity that the development must incorporate 'green' development …"