Jian Wang (pictured), chairman of technology steering committee of Alibaba Group and the mastermind of Alibaba Group's City Brain project, shared his insights with the Hong Kong media last week on how Hong Kong's city management can become smarter.
Formerly the chief technology officer of Alibaba Group (2012-2016), Wang spoke about his vision of City Brain, which is to serve as the foundational infrastructure of a city.
First announced at the Alibaba Computing Conference 2016 in Hangzhou, the "Hangzhou City Brain" was initiated by the Hangzhou government in mainland China. It was designed to address urban challenges, primarily, traffic congestion problems.
The "Hangzhou City Brain" was to serve as a hub to consolidate data and provide real-time analytics. It is powered by Alibaba Cloud's A.I. program, as well as big data analytics capabilities to perform real-time traffic predictions, using its video and image recognition technologies.
The backbone of the "Hangzhou City Brain" is Apsara, Alibaba Cloud's large scale computing operating system. Apsara is able to cluster millions of servers into a super computer and to support a multitude of cloud-based services by analyzing terabytes of data points. Using propriety algorithms, this computational engine is said to be one of the largest of its kind in the world.
With the use of Apsara, Hangzhou City Brain can "view" the videos taken by some 50,000 roadside surveillance video cameras in Hangzhou within a short time frame, and make [traffic signal] decisions in just seconds.
Essential city infrastructure
In explaining its importance, Wang alluded City Brain to a power grid: "In the past, the power grid was the most important infrastructure in a city, which served to transmit electricity to different households. In the future, a city will need a new infrastructure to enable computing power to operate itself. That infrastructure is the city brain," he said.
"The basic concept of City Brain is that internet forms the basic infrastructure of a city," Wang said. "The internet will continue to affect us in the next 50 to 100 years. It will create an even greater impact on humankind than electricity, when all things on Earth are connected by the internet."
The growing importance of a city brain is a response to the changing nature of our economy, Wang said. "In the past, one used to measure a city's health by its level of power consumption. In the future, when the economy transforms into a computing economy, the health of a city will be measured by its consumption of computing power."
In August, Alibaba announced to partner with the Macau Government to implement City Brain. Can the City Brain model be implemented in Hong Kong as well?
"It was not so much about Alibaba bringing the City Brain model to Macau from Hangzhou. Rather, it's both Hangzhou and Macau realized the need for a city brain. Each city brain is different, though they look alike, so much so that all the power grids worldwide are the same, and they only differ by their voltages."
Potential uses of City Brain
Wang encouraged Hong Kong to consider the adoption of City Brain. "Hong Kong is a big city. With so many people living in it, it should explore the possibility of turning city brain into its city infrastructure."
Wang said there are a lot of ways to rethink how to design [the layout of] a city with City Brain. "Land is so precious in Hong Kong. With City Brain, people can cut down on the amount of time they spend commuting on roads, or remove some roads altogether to make way to build something else. If one can increase the efficiency of road usage with City Brain, we can make roads narrower or even fewer," he suggested. "This is the ultimate goal of City Brain -- not just to solve traffic congestion problems, but to reduce the number of roads so they do not consume as much space."
"With City Brain, we can basically identify those buildings that can be converted into a truly 'green building,'" Wang suggested. "As I said, the ultimate goal of City Brain is to optimize or cut down on the amount of resources to run a city, such as by using just one-tenth of the land, one-tenth of the water and one-tenth of the power. We all know how much of the water and power is being wasted, just that we are not entirely sure about how these precious resources are being wasted."
"All cities are competing for scarce resources. I am not a city manager, I am just imagining some of the areas in a city that can be redesigned with the help of City Brain," Wang said. "But based on our experience with City Brain in Hangzhou, we know that the above goals are reachable."