About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

China, government services and the tech revolution

China spends significantly more money on artificial intelligence innovation than anywhere else in the world. China’s ambition to become a world leader in AI technology by 2030 is no secret, with the state announcing this target as a key national priority. This has created abundant opportunities for public sector innovation. A central theme of China’s AI development strategy is that AI can serve as a digital solution to provide public goods and improve governance. But what can Europe learn from these advances?

Globally, the debate on the use of AI in China has focused predominantly on the implications of this technological race for global security and for Chinese state power. Right groups in particular have voiced concerns over how technological advances are aiding authoritarian political control and repressive social governance. There has been surprisingly little analysis of what these advances have meant for the delivery of public services and the future of government, despite China’s unprecedented achievements in poverty reduction and public service delivery.

At Nesta, we explore human, social and public dimensions of AI so that the benefits of new technologies can be shaped for the greatest public benefit. There is recognition in Europe that AI technologies have the potential to transform the public sector, improve the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery, and benefit citizens and society. Yet the scale of investment in AI and the rate of adoption of new technologies for public services in China far exceeds developments in Europe. We think that a detailed examination of China’s experience of public sector innovation could offer valuable insights and lessons for policymakers in Europe. But we also recognise the inherent tension between using technological advances in ways that limit citizen rights.

Broadening the debate

In response to this untapped debate, Nesta is curating an essay collection which aims to make sense of how China is innovating in the use of digital technologies in public services, and explore what useful lessons other countries, in particular those in Europe, might draw from China’s experience. At the same time, we're aware of the great sensitivities that surround this debate. Our collection will offer a fair and balanced perspective on the topic, including calling out instances where technology is being used in ways which are ethically unacceptable and violate citizens' rights.

China’s innovation in public services

China’s 2017 ‘New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan’ represents a green-light from central government for local authorities to proactively incorporate AI technologies into public services and infrastructures. As a result, municipal governments in China are investing heavily in research and development, and experimenting with local-level pilot projects which integrate AI into public services in order to address societal challenges.

AI applications in the field of healthcare are a key priority in China, due to its scarce medical services in rural areas and its rapidly ageing population. Breakthroughs in medical imaging, diagnostics, and treatment decision-assistant tools are a promising sign that AI might be able to help ease China’s overburdened healthcare system.

China’s cities are leading the way in the use of innovative technologies to improve urban public space, developing cutting-edge 'smart city' infrastructure, intelligent urban management systems and innovations in public transport.

China has also emerged as the world leader in EdTech, and tens of millions of Chinese students now use some form of AI to learn - via extracurricular tutoring programmes, digital learning platforms and in their school classrooms. In comparison, the UK education system in particular could do more to maximise the benefits of innovative tools in schools.

Next steps

Nesta will be commissioning experts in the field to contribute essays to our upcoming collection, which will explore specific cases where AI and other digital technologies are being deployed in China to improve public services. The essays will focus on AI applications in medicine, smart cities and ed-tech, and offer insights into what could be learnt, adopted or adapted from China.

This essay collection builds on previous work Nesta has carried out on innovation in China, exploring how China’s capacity for absorbing and re-designing ideas and technologies has accelerated its trajectory towards more innovative growth, how the rise of makerspaces reflects China’s increasingly innovation-led economy, and on the emergence of smart city pilots and investment in digital urban management infrastructure in China. This collection also links to upcoming work from Nesta’s Innovation Mapping team on the relationship between AI and civil liberties, which will be published early in 2020.

Nesta will be developing this essay collection on China’s public sector innovation over the coming months - if you would like to find out more about the project, do get in touch with us on Twitter @tomwsymons.


Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Deputy Director, fairer start mission

Tom is the deputy mission director for the fairer start mission at Nesta.

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Hessy Elliott

Hessy Elliott

Hessy Elliott

Senior Analyst, A Fairer Start

Hessy was a senior analyst in the fairer start mission.

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