Zhuo Chen

City Brain – Values and Materialities of the Chinese smart infrastructure

Smart infrastructure, providing systemized solutions for urban development through the intelligence of infrastructures, has been seen as a new impetus for sustainable urbanism and is expected to bring a dramatic change in the business arena in both developed and developing countries. However, existing research is mostly premised on corporate visions and market-making around smart infrastructure or state-led initiatives and is typically focused either on users or designers, underestimating patterns beyond these approaches.   

This ethnographic PhD research in Hangzhou, China, broadens the current research perspective by exploring the state-private co-production of City Brain, a smart infrastructure integrating platforms and AI technologies into traditional urban infrastructures and affecting people’s lives in various situations.  

The field site includes two communities. One is an exemplar residential community named as “the Future Community of Hangzhou,” with most residents frequently engaging with City Brain in daily life. Through City Brain, they can arrange parking and transportation activities, approach digital medicare and public services, accumulate personal credit points and use those points for more efficient public services. The other community consists of professionals who work in Hangzhou City Brain Operation Command Center, where experts from private platform giant Alibaba, research institutes, and the municipal government, jointly participate in building and operating City Brain. Through an exploration of people’s interactions with City Brain, the research unpacks processes of smart infrastructure formation and explores the roles of and relations between different actors in this innovative process. While this approach broadens the discussion on smart infrastructure beyond, it provides alternative trajectories toward a smarter society.   

City Brain, the state-private-coproduced platforms in Hangzhou, share many similarities in technological visions with the now-ended Finnish national AI program AuroraAI. These similarities will offer a point of departure for comparing findings with research currently conducted at the University of Helsinki. This comparison contributes to the understanding of how visions of smart infrastructures and smart societies dovetail with different local and global political economies and how those visions unfold in practice in different cultural and ideological contexts. Moreover, this research seeks specificity, which goes beyond general claims about smart cities and allows more detailed comparisons to take place.