The city that sees it all

Shenzhen is at the vanguard of China’s “smart city” movement. The trains run on time—and the sensors and cameras run all the time. Is that a tradeoff the world can live with?

Facial-monitoring technology on display at Huawei’s headquarters in Shenzhen. Billy H.C. Kwok—Getty Images

This article is part of a Fortune Special Report on Rethinking the City.

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This article is part of a Fortune Special Report on Rethinking the City.

On an evening in late January, the Shenzhen North train station is a microcosm of a fast-changing metropolis—and a potential flash point for chaos. 

Shenzhen has 12.5 million residents, about 10 times as many as in the 1990s. Millions of workers have immigrated here, drawn to its booming tech economy. Tonight, on the eve of Chinese New Year, hundreds of thousands of them are returning to their family homes for the holiday. Scores of travelers spill out onto the lawn in front of the station, laden with luggage and gifts. And with concerns mounting over the coronavirus epidemic, the crowd buzzes with an undercurrent of unease. 

But Shenzhen North also showcases this metropolis’s web of “smart city” technology—and that web keeps the crowd moving smoothly. The effect begins as passengers approach the station. Subway cars and stops are plastered with automated screens that steer users to the nearest escalators. Passengers use their phones to swipe through subway gates, reducing delays. Those who drive to the station pull into a smart parking lot, where automated systems guide them to open spots. And there’s no waiting to pay parking fees—they’re automatically charged to drivers’ bank accounts, with the help of A.I.-powered cameras that read license plates. 

Inside the station, the faces of Chinese nationals are scanned at security checkpoints. Passengers then enter a hall lined with hundreds of cameras, as well as security robots. If anything obstructs the flow of humanity, authorities spot it quickly and respond accordingly. 

Shenzhen North is just one example of how technology imposes order in China’s smartest city. Shenzhen has become an urban laboratory where tech companies collaborate with city planners on strategies for responding to the challenges of an exponentially growing population—approaches that could catch on globally as more countries’ economies urbanize. The result is a city where authorities collect massive troves of data to manage traffic congestion, pollution, and resources like water and electricity. It’s also a city where the tradeoff between personal privacy and civic efficiency is tilting decisively one way. 

Decades ago, China designated Shenzhen as a Special Economic Zone, showering local companies with tax breaks and freedom to experiment. Some of China’s largest tech companies are now headquartered here, including social media and gaming giant Tencent, telecom-equipment maker Huawei, and dronemaker DJI. Last year, Shenzhen’s economic output reached $374 billion, surpassing Hong Kong’s. When Mabel Zhang was growing up in a nearby city, Shenzhen was a drab stopover on the way to Hong Kong. Now in her late twenties, Zhang is a Shenzhen resident and booster. “It’s fast and young and active,” she says. “People have so many new ideas.”

Among those ideas is technology-driven urban management. With help from its tech giants, Shenzhen has built a sophisticated, centralized data infrastructure, supported by a Chinese government mandate that cities build such platforms. 

One company at the core of the effort is Huawei, whose willingness to cooperate with authorities has made the U.S. and other nations reluctant to do business with it. (The company says it doesn’t use its equipment to gather information about customers.) Huawei has partnered with Shenzhen to build a “city brain” of sorts. “Most cities approach this project by project, but that’s not very efficient,” says Edwin Diender, Huawei’s chief digital transformation officer. Shenzhen instead aggregates inputs from a wide range of city services into a “command center” feed. 

At any given moment, countless cameras, sensors, and devices feed vast amounts of data into a central platform, whose results are displayed on a single, huge digitized wall. The feed helps managers gauge and respond to traffic patterns, water usage rates, and even the capacity of parks, while deterring crime. It also breaks down information silos, enabling officials to more quickly anticipate how, say, a new housing development might affect traffic patterns and electricity use. To feed this data-hungry machine, Shenzhen has automated processes for household registration for new residents—the better to make sure each of its many metrics stays up to date. 

Some benefits of the technology are already easy to spot. Drivers in urban China have long endured intense road congestion. But Shenzhen’s “traffic brain,” which among other things adjusts traffic lights based on real-time road-use data, is helping cars flow more smoothly. In interviews, several residents highlighted the security that comes with data gathering as one of the city’s most attractive features. Dylan Li, a tech worker from Hubei province, tells Fortune, “There are many, many cameras, so [Shenzhen] is very safe.” 

This brainpower will soon be amplified by 5G technology, which can make communication among sensors, devices, and databases almost instantaneous. More than 13,000 base stations have been built around Shenzhen, which will make the city the first in China to receive full 5G coverage, possibly as soon as August. Richard Hu, an urban planning professor at Australian National University who has studied Shenzhen, says the 5G rollout could hasten a range of benefits, including the introduction of autonomous vehicles and better access to medical care. (Last March, using a 5G connection, doctors in Beijing manipulated a robot to perform brain surgery in Shenzhen, some 1,200 miles away.) 

In China, a “smart city” is a city of surveillance, and that fact can overshadow the advantages. Supporters point to the role of surveillance in public safety: In some cities, for example, city-management data has helped officials find and treat people who have been exposed to the coronavirus. Critics point to the deployment of technology in Xinjiang, where China’s use of a high-tech network to monitor members of the Uighur minority has prompted a fierce debate about the balance between security and human rights. Even in Shenzhen, some residents say they find the constant use of facial recognition intrusive. 

Recently, Shenzhen’s city government has offered a rare public reflection on this technology. At another high-speed train station, Futian, Shenzhen is cosponsoring with Hong Kong an exhibition called “Eyes of the City.” The show, which runs through March, features installations examining the role of technology in urban life. One such work invites viewers to reflect on facial recognition, and asks whether they wish to be tracked with the technology through the exhibition. According to organizers, a large majority of participants opt out—a sign that Chinese citizens may be less comfortable with such tracking than conventional wisdom suggests.

Carlo Ratti, chief curator of “Eyes of the City” and director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT, tells Fortune he hopes the exhibit “encourages individuals to take a stance.” Given their influence in smart-city tech, Ratti says, Shenzhen and China “should also be the first place to promote a debate” about it.

The influence is spreading: Shenzhen officials are helping develop master plans for city-management systems in Chile, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria. (Hardware from Huawei and ZTE, another Shenzhen-based manufacturer, is part of the bargain.) But the debate over data gathering, for some of the leaders disseminating the technology, is nearly moot. For improving urban efficiency, Huawei’s Diender says he sees “no other way forward than surveillance.” Asked whether Shenzhen’s model will spread globally, he responds, “The short answer is yes.” 

This article appears in the March 2020 issue of Fortune.

More from Fortune’s special report on cities:

—Why the modern city needs a makeover
—Can San Francisco be saved?
—5 big ideas for fixing global cities’ most daunting challenges
—Did the “techlash” kill Alphabet’s city of the future?
—20 maps charting the rise of the modern megacity

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