Essay: The idea of a “smarter planet”

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  • The idea of a "smarter planet"
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Since the reform and opening-up policy was launched in 1978, China is undergoing a giant transformation. It has been progressively assertive in an international arena. Owing to Deng Xiaoping’s era, the socialist market economy orientation has been steadfastly promoted. Urbanization has been rapidly constructed and economic achievement has been intensely made. Until 2016, 57.4% of the total population lives in urban areas.1 After China has reached certain economic achievements, urban problem has alertly emerged. Urban problem includes but not limited to environmental pollution and shortage of natural resources.2 And this would definitely restrain the sustainable development of China.

The ideology of ‘Smarter planet’ has been mobilized by IBM in 2008, after the outbreak of financial crisis. A year later, IBM organized 22 smart city forums so as to build a network with local government officials.3 To response the external cogitation ‘Smart City’, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development officially issued ‘Notice of Carry Out the National Smart City Pilot’ plus ‘National Interim Measures for Smart City Pilot’ in 2012. Meanwhile, 90 pilot items for constructing Smart City has been given the go-ahead. Regarding to the National Development and Reform Commission 20144, Smart City has been treated as a key tool and policy to boost industrialization, informalization and urbanization. Until 2013, 193 admitted pilot projects has been promoted, which mostly were contributed by the partnerships between IT firms and the government. It is because the National Development and Reform Commission of China has given the definition of China’s Smart City – ‘new fundamental rule of boosting smart city planning, building up, management and service, cloud computing big data and spatial geographic information integration’. The Chinese government would place technology as their initial tool to construct Smart City.

In the following essay, SWOT analysis (i.e. strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats) on overall Smart City projects would be demonstrated in order to provide a nuanced analysis.


To begin with, Smart City demonstrates a comprehensive plan on technology development. And this provides a solid base for sustainable growth of China in the future. From application stage, Smart City serves the fundamental necessities of the citizens. For instance, smart agriculture amends the previous agriculture method and enhances the efficiency. With advancing the technology, famers and industry would easily measure the harvest on different agricultural products. And they would also manage the harvest in different provinces and regions. The more harvest, the more agricultural products would be exported. This creates economic benefit in a long term. Thence, the prolonged idea of ‘taking agriculture as China’s based’ would be further strengthened. In the recent 19th National Congress held in February 2018, the Secretary Xi Jinping has delivered the idea of modern agriculture.5 Smart agriculture would be fully applied so as to match the leader’s ideology. Apart from smart agriculture, different aspects of application layer (e.g. general security, smart governance, smart transportation and smart energy) would be achieved.

Since 2010, Shanghai municipal government has raised their concern on Smart City. In order to response to the National 12th Five-Year Plan, Shanghai municipal government has launched ‘The Smart City Plan 2011-2013’.6 Here, smart governance and smart healthcare have been attained. The Shanghai municipal government adopted ETC system so as to control the transportation and traffic intelligence. Also, they have constructed health file platform and hospital reservation system in order to enhance the smart healthcare in the province. The abovementioned examples illustrate Smart City in the application layer.

Secondly, through the advancement on platform and network stages, the data of China would not be easily intervened by the other countries. To further extend ‘The Smart City Plan 2011-2013’, Shanghai municipal government constructed the network layer by cooperation with the leading telecom companies (i.e. China Telecom and China Mobile).

Not only has the partner founded in Chinese companies, but also did the foreign ventures take part in the subsystem construction. For example, the State Grid Shanghai Municipal Electric Power Company and Schneider Electric have participated in the platform and network layers. With the launch of ‘Shanghai Promotion Action Plan for Cloud Computing Industry Development (2010-2012)’ and ‘Provisions of Shanghai Municipality on Promoting the Development of E-Commerce’ issued on gazette by the Shanghai Municipality People’s Congress and Standing Committee, Shanghai has built a cloud computing system with a comprehensive information security platform that protected by the rule of law. Ultimately, e-commerce would be benefited by that. The revenue of information service in the field has attained 1713 billion RMB in 2013 and constituted 6% of Shanghai’s GDP7.

From 2010, Ningbo municipal government has launched the ‘Decision of Ningbo Municipal Government on the Smart City Construction’ and ‘Action of Speeding Up the Creation of Smart City in Ningbo (2011-2015)’. After practicing ‘government fully mode’ for two years, ‘2013 Action Plan of Speeding Up the Creation of Smart City in Ningbo’ has promoted in order to form partnerships with the big three telecom operators (i.e. China Unicom, China Mobile and China Telecom) to build the network layer. The network layer involved in setting up physical network backbone, WIFI and optical fibre. While three leading telecom companies invested exceed 10 billion RMB8, the Ningbo municipal government has reached Smart City with an advantage of risk diverseness. The increasing involvement of private sectors would enhance the source of finance. With sufficient financial resources and technology professions, Smart City would be developed in a sustainable way.

Thirdly, there is effectiveness on Smart City plan promoted by the local government. As local governments own the knowledge on geographical stickiness9, a localized Smart City promotes city development. Smart City serves a function to meet the concerns and tactics.10 Owing to the early country project on separating the development of urban and rural areas, the implementation of Smart City would have to maintain a variety so as to foster competitive economy. The rural areas would not have to blindly achieve the plan promoted in the urban areas.11 The flexibility of promoting smart cities within different provinces would allow them to explore and adjust the effective governance doctrine.

For instance, the dominance of Smart City is held by Shanghai government. The related departments would cooperate with each other in a rapid response based on the order of municipal government. Smart public service platform (e.g. electric bill and collation of transportation information) has been constructed sequentially. The enhancement of governance and economic benefit would encourage the confidence of municipal government in order to run the smart city plan continuously.


The first weakness of Smart City would be financing. According to the report of CCID Information Research Centre that directly under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, a lot of investment would be required in facilitating a Smart City.12 In 2013, over 250 cities has raised their concern on developing Smart City. Nonetheless, less than 80 cities proposed Smart City development proposal and took real action.13 Not only does the initial plan require a lot of professions such as urban planners, scientists and technology experts to carry out surveying and layout, but also would the implementation and following-up procedures demand a lot of financial resources. Whether the government or the private institutes would have sufficient financing is the main concern of Smart City.

In 2011, Ningbo municipal government collaborated with other institutes to hold the ‘1st Smart City Exposition Ningbo China’ and they bought related products for over 10 billion RMB.14 This huge finance expense would reduce the public finance expenditure for the municipal government. Meanwhile, the conflicts between different stakeholders would impede Smart City. Certain numbers of operation models would be discovered in Smart City projects in China. Government fully operation pattern would be the most common one. In this pattern, the government (i.e. Central or local government) provides financial resources, operates and takes the ownership of the smart infrastructure.15 Besides, the government would also subcontract the planning and construction to a particular firm. Once the government decides to carry out this mode, it would bear long-term economic burden. The other civil expenditures such as healthcare and urban governance would be reduced. Thence, the other stakeholders such as taxpayers and healthcare beneficiaries would be resentful once their social benefits have been minimized. For example, although Shanghai has built the Smart City in a rapid way, the process on conducting data research and applying remains slow. It is because with the low involvement of research institutes, the Shanghai government would only encourage to develop imitation on technology products. Innovation would not be seen in the current Smart City planning.


Refer to the foregoing paragraphs, there are three opportunities under Smart City plan in China – advancement of human capital, stimulation of capital and economy and enhancement of behavioural change. First, for human capital advancement, owing to the development of Smart City, citizen would be benefited and empowered from education and technology participation. 16 When the citizen enjoys the smart city infrastructure such as WIFI and network, they would gain intellectual capital. Second, Smart City would give a further boost to the capital and economy. Because of the rapid technology development, it would be unavoidable for provinces participating in the competition on economic revenue. Chinese government officials would want to demonstrate their governance ability to the Central government in order to get further promotion. This positive competition mechanism would enhance the national GDP. 17 Shanghai would be a good illustration for this statement. The bigger economic benefit is reached, the more capital would be used as a foundation in social sustainability. The last opportunity would be behavioural change.18 When citizen gets involved in Smart City projects by enjoying the infrastructure (e.g. WIFI, wireless city and smart healthcare), they would have the sense of belongings and responsibilities for their own provinces and even the country. These would encourage more people to study or conduct research on technology. Innovation would be created during the empowerment and technology research.


Albeit there are opportunities for constructing Smart City, three threats would not be underrated. First, there is dislocation for Smart City. In order to response to the national plan, different provincial and municipal governments immediately constructSmart City. Without conducting much research, the governments take the initiative to develop Smart City, even there are risks. The exact purpose on Smart City and the affordability of their own provinces and regions have not been analysed. Thence, the dislocation for Smart City leads to different negative impacts, and ghost cities19 would be one of the abovementioned impacts. For instance, in Ordos, the enormous modern commercial and residential buildings are failed to attract inhabitants. The region has aimed at attracting one million people to stay there. However, only 80 thousand residents moved in. When demand of housing is far less than the supply, the issue of sustainability in social terms would be questions. Not only would the government suffer lost as it is the leading role of Smart City project, but also would different stakeholders (e.g. citizens) not receive suitable social benefit.

Furthermore, incessant conflicts between stakeholders20 would be existed. Local governments ought to consider whether they should adopt the national planning according to their own provincial situations (i.e. financial affordability, the supply of professions and citizen’s willingness). However, owing to Chinese political culture, local governments would follow national command in all cost21. The face-saving culture is rooted in Chinese politics. Local governments would need to bear extreme burden to monitor and develop a crisscross eco-system of citizen and other stakeholders participated in the Smart City projects. On the matter of financial resources, since no precise short-dated political and financial returns, Smart City would definitely create heavy burden towards regional and provincial development. With the low occupancy rate of the residential and commercial buildings in Smart City, the property developers would suffer lost. They may quit the projects and lead to unfinished building. The local governments would need to spend extra effort on handling that.


Developing Smart City would be a global trend. Not only would the technology be responsive to the needs of the city construction, but also would it bring economic, social and environmental impacts towards the issue of sustainability. Smart City is a comprehensive urban plan that constructs the long-term development of provinces and China. Central and local governments of China own the dominance in Smart City construction. The leading role of the governments boosts the development in a planned way. It is recommended that the governments would enhance the involvements and cooperation between different stakeholders, such as technology companies, research institutes and general public. Thence, more capital and profession would be applied to erect Smart City sustainably.

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