A ‘smart city’ generally refers to a city that has enhanced the quality of its services by adopting advanced information and communications technologies. The need for better services is usually motivated by two fundamental drivers: increasing urbanisation and growing demands for better quality of life. Added to these factors are economic considerations, such as the desire to increase gross domestic product, develop the services sector and attract innovative people and firms.

In China’s case, the push to develop smart cities seems to have an additional critical motive – the desire to strengthen the country’s main governing institutions. Most overarching policy frameworks, such as the five-year plans, emphasise upholding leadership by the Communist Party of China (CPC) as one of the basic principles of development, while China’s New Generation of Artificial Intelligence Development Plan recognises that artificial intelligence (AI) can improve ‘social governance, and is indispensable for the effective maintenance of social stability’. Rogier Creemers explores this motivation in more depth in his essay in this collection on the ideology behind China’s AI strategy. Finally, developing and exporting smart city technologies is part of China’s international ambitions outlined in the Digital Silk Road component of its flagship Belt and Road Initiative. For all of these reasons, the development of smart cities has become a policy priority in China.

Of China’s more than 500 smart city pilots, this essay focuses on two flagship projects – the City Brain system of urban traffic management and the System 206 smart court case-handling system. The first is what we might consider to be a ‘traditional’ smart city initiative.

‘The rapid evolution of City Brain resembles the growth of a startup, where the focus is on rapid development with mistakes and bugs fixed along the way'

Smarts courts are rather more unusual – although they are usually listed in Chinese planning documents as integral parts of smart cities – and demonstrate the complexity of smart projects and how different AI applications are bundled together. They also highlight some of the ethical questions and concerns that emerge when AI algorithms are used in justice systems. Both these smart city projects present possible lessons for the UK and the EU, including a focus on policy consistency and competition between different localities in the Chinese system, skilful deployment of proven commercial technologies (rather than necessarily cutting-edge technologies), and different models of interaction between government and the private sector.


Eugeniu Han

PhD candidate in Policy Analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School and assistant policy researcher at the RAND Corporation