When I first visited Beijing 25 years ago, the streets and sidewalks overflowed with people, bicycles and trucks. I just returned from my 14th visit, and while the bustle of traffic remains, there’s a tangible difference. Today, smart fleets of bicycles, buses and trains embedded with Internet of Things (IoT) technologies are making urban transportation smarter, more accessible and efficient.
In many ways, smart ride-sharing conveys the essence of China’s IoT transformation: It draws on Chinese traditions while integrating advanced technologies in novel and unexpected ways. I was struck by signs all around that China is no longer a tech imitator — it has matured into a tech innovator, solidifying its place as an IoT leader.
China's tectonic shift toward IoT adoption, innovation and R&D has seemingly happened overnight. Inspired by the successes of internet giants such as Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba, numerous IoT startups, together with large service and technology providers, exhibited a new entrepreneurial zeal I didn’t see during my visit three years ago.
A Hive Of IoT Activity
I saw first-hand how the growth of IoT permeates almost every business segment and public system, not only manufacturing and industrial sectors but also transportation, city services (including pollution reduction), healthcare, retail, agriculture and more.
Bike-sharing services, such as Ofo or Mobile, which allow consumers to find and pay for bike rentals with mobile phone apps, have taken off like wildfire. I saw these multicolored, IoT-enabled bikes everywhere, parked wherever the last user left them.
In Beijing, I used Didi Chuxing, a ride-hailing company that acquired Uber China in 2016. When I clicked Didi’s app, it automatically translated questions and answers back and forth between myself and the nearest driver, who found me in his electric vehicle (EV) within 30 seconds.
Didi exemplifies many new companies that are rapidly expanding and diversifying their IoT services. In addition to smart ride-sharing, Didi operates one of the world’s largest EV fleets and is emerging as an “autonomous superpower.” It’s just one of many businesses here venturing into EV and autonomous vehicles and infrastructure. Maybe I’ll hail a driverless vehicle during my next visit.
Whether at my hotel or public places, wireless communications networks linked to city services seemed ubiquitous in Beijing. ABI Research reports other major cities (Dalian, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Tianjin) are also leveraging these networks to accelerate smart city services, including energy, transportation, public safety, lighting, sustainability and more.
Drivers Of China’s IoT Ambition
Of course, the Chinese government has promulgated IoT since 2010 when it set an ambitious market target of 163 billion U.S. dollars by 2020. However, with 20% annual growth the past few years, the China Economic Information Service now thinks the Chinese IoT market could reach more than 230 billion US dollars by 2020.
Today, government policies provide preferred tax breaks to IoT manufacturers, and the Special Fund requires public entities to have an IoT initiative. To lead autonomous transportation and other IoT solutions, China is proactively recruiting experts in artificial intelligence (AI), data science and other cutting-edge domains from major tech companies in the United States and elsewhere.
Government is not the only driver of China's IoT ambitions. After speaking at Peking University, I met with startups developing an array of applications — from connected, mobile offices to underwater drones for safety and security. At the China Europe International Business School, an executive of a vending-machine business shared with me his ambitions, including plans to evolve his current “smart” vending machine with NFC technology, to a fully personalized, automated service preparing drinks and meals just the way you like them, all powered by IoT, fog computing and AI.
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