Suddenly: Orwell. Scary and Powerful.

Smart City implementation has the potential to be Orwellian. Some want to point their fingers at countries whose “repressive technologies we must monitor and denounce”.

By viewing it in this simplistic binary way, we may also miss out on innovative adoption of smart technologies which can help us clean up our act and breathe more easily.

First, the Orwellian futures:

The Atlantic  says that China “is racing to implement a pervasive system of algorithmic surveillance. Harnessing advances in AI, data mining and storage to construct detailed profiles on all citizens, China is developing a citizen score to incentivize ‘good’ behavior.”

That’s bad for someone who’s used to the idea of an individual’s right to disagree, and who lives in China.

But they go on to assert that this “should scare everyone” and that “Democracies around the world must monitor and denounce this sinister creep toward an Orwellian World”

Should we just view China as a place where sinister, repressive stuff comes from?  If we do, will we miss any innovations that would help us here?

A colleague who travels and works there told me “in 5 years, cities in China will be cleaner in terms of air pollution than those in USA”. This set me of on a bout of research. How can this be measured? Whose air is cleaner? Which direction are the 2 countries – and Australia-moving in? Who’s deploying ‘smart’ ways to monitor and control this? Are they working?

The nearest thing we have to a worldwide standard is the Air Quality Index, developed by America’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This is based on the level of 6 pollutants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, P10, PM2.5, carbon monoxide and ozone.

Using this AQI, in April 2018, at time of writing, Shanghai’s index is 70, Chicago’s is 42 and Sydney’s 14. Bangkok’s – where I’ll be next week – is 22 and Taipei’s 52.

Shanghai’s air is dirtier – no surprise to anyone who has been there. And there is some way to go before China can close the gap.

So, who is moving in which direction?

America’s EPA was started – or consolidated from other agencies – in 1970. Staff there recalls that there was “an enormous sense of purpose and excitement” and “this agency was going to do something about a problem that was on the minds of a lot of people”.

China’s pollution control dates back to 1972 when representatives attended the UN Conference on the Human Environment. The current Ministry of Ecology and Environment is charged with protecting China’s atmosphere from pollution & to implement environmental regulations. It also funds research and development.

Will China’s Ministry move faster than America’s agency?

Will a country like Australia be able to learn from both?

There are few certainties in the future. But right now, things aren’t looking so great in the West.

The current EPA leader is a self-described advocate against the agency’s agenda who rejects the scientific consensus that carbon dioxide emissions are a primary contributor to climate change. The agency has relaxed enforcement of air pollution rules, and halted efforts to combat climate change.

In China, some active figures are prepared to question conventional wisdom. A Vice Minister challenged the government, warning “disaster threatens unless development is checked”.

As for devices that could help – In 2016 Mitsubishi developed a high precision air-quality sensor which can measure PM2.5 and distinguish between pollen and dust. It’s expensive by sensor standards; but no doubt there will be price decreases from Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese companies.

And as a conclusion?

I couldn’t definitively answer all of my questions.

At a national level, there is enough going on to support the pessimists.

There may however be an alternative: city leaders take their own initiatives to deploy air quality sensor technology – and use this both to enforce, and to plan for, better air for their citizens to breathe.

Now that would be smart.

Related Posts


Geof Heydon, Associate of Creator Tech and Smart Cities/Communities thought-leader, will be co-presenting with Newcastle Council’s City Digital Strategist Nick...