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LED lights may lead China through the new normal
2015-05-22 09:35:58

This month I participated in the Presidential Mission to China on Smart Cities — Smart Growth, sponsored by the Commerce and Energy departments. The mission’s goal was to increase U.S. exports to China by supporting companies in launching or increasing their China business in the marketplace for smart cities and clean energy products.

China’s economy is entering a stage its leaders call the “new normal.” Since 2010, China’s growth rates have declined from the previous double-digit growth to around 7.4 percent per year. Beijing is therefore increasing its investments in entrepreneurial companies, farms and needed infrastructure, areas which are likely to promote higher growth. The U.S. delegation was composed of senior executives from 24 top firms in the mission’s target sectors, ranging from water-processing technology, power-plant emissions-eating algae to my own company’s Smart City technology. This was the first such trip designated a presidential mission and was co-led by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Energy Deputy Secretary Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall.

The area of greatest potential investment is the segment my company, Sensity Systems, addresses — Smart Cities. I have explained this technology in many parts of the world, getting reactions varying from blank stares to wild enthusiasm. Briefly, some 4 billion ordinary streetlights are being converted to new, bright, energy-efficient LED lights. Technology makes each of those new lights into a networking point where sensors and computer circuitry can gather and manage all of the data needed to make a city truly smart. This information is made available through an open application interface, much like an app store. This helps cities manage public safety, control parking, perform pollution monitoring, and manage municipal assets and equipment.

Most U.S. cities are just beginning to grapple with the implications of even a simple LED upgrade without sensors. For instance, the president recently announced a one-year goal of installing 1.8 million LED streetlights with no mention at all of using the opportunity to install advanced sensory networks. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” To truly change the way our cities work, we must gather as much real-time data as possible about what is really going on in them. We are not close to doing this.

China, however, gets it. During the trade mission, we met with China’s Premier Li Keqiang, the vice premier, the minister of commerce, the minister of science and technology, the Shanghai Communist Party secretary, the Guangzhou governor, and numerous other officials. Their message was best captured by Vice Premier Wang Yang. In order to emerge as a world leader while dealing with the “new normal,” he said, China has three goals: Stabilize economic growth; redouble the focus on “the rule of law” and intellectual property rights; and improve living standards and environmental quality.

To improve the lives of citizens while being constrained by lower growth rates, he told us, China needs to restructure its society and embrace new technology. To help with this, the vice premier committed to opening up the Chinese economy.

Guangdong province, including the cities of Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Zhuhai, comprises 107 million people, of whom 70 million are Internet users. The province has 300,000 cell towers, and Wi-Fi is deployed in most public areas of cities. Guangdong is heavily into Smart City deployment and has 11 different city trials already in progress. The province’s progress on these initiatives is being scored by Beijing.

All of this is great news for China’s citizens but it has implications that go far beyond China’s borders. Technology revolutions that can fundamentally change the economy, quality of life and long-term competitiveness of a nation rarely occur. Using the conversion to LED outdoor lighting to create an open, national platform for innovation, built around big data collected from our cities, is just such a revolution. Nations such as China that have a centralized government ready to spend on national infrastructure might beat the United States to this next technology revolution and gain an international advantage. It is imperative that this technology be deployed quickly in the U.S. through government-led initiatives and funding.

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