How Alibaba Cloud Is Building a Smarter Hainan
Exploring the massive "Smart Hainan" initiative & how Alibaba Cloud is involved
Earlier this month, word came that a pilot project for Hainan’s planned city management platform had received approval.1 The target for this project is Wenchang, a coastal county-level city with a population of about 560,000.2 This project aims to implement smart, granular city management through an approach heavily leveraging cloud computing and Internet of Things (IoT) technology.
Oh, and Alibaba Cloud is heavily involved — not just in the pilot project, but in the management platform as well.
Below, let’s peel back the onion and examine how this local project overlaps with Hainan’s provincial initiatives and China’s national goals.
Why this project matters
There are several reasons why this project is worth zeroing in on:
Smart cities, “Smart Hainan”: This pilot project is part of a much larger “Smart Hainan” project, and it provides an example of how China’s long-term “smart cities” (智慧城市) initiative is being executed at a local level. Modern tech such as cloud computing, AI, 5G, and IoT have been core elements of China’s smart city strategies over the years, and this pilot project demonstrates how they’re being implemented in tangible efforts.
Alibaba Cloud’s involvement: Alibaba Cloud has established roots in Hainan for government-contracted work. The private cloud company won a 13-million-yuan bid last year to supply the “software development and hardware” for the first phase of the “Hainan Comprehensive City Management Service Platform,” the program that this pilot project is part of.3 Alibaba Cloud has also contributed to other recent city- and provincial-level cloud projects, such as a “city brain” (城市大脑) in Haikou.
A private cloud company contributing to a government project: China’s government systems using products from private cloud providers like Alibaba and Tencent is nothing new, but state-level projects such as China’s “national cloud” (国家云) and the state-owned enterprise cloud (国资云) favoring state-owned enterprises4 have raised questions of whether these projects will influence China’s cloud computing market.5 Alibaba Cloud’s role in the “Smart Hainan” project provides a current example of a private cloud company taking the lead in a provincial-level project.
Let’s explore this pilot project and its significance in more detail.
Building a smarter Hainan
According to China National Radio, the Wenchang pilot project’s scope includes the following aspects:
City aesthetic management: This aspect of the project will explore a “smart discovery + people’s reporting” model (智能发现 + 全民上报), making use of a mixture of methods such as door-mounted security cameras, drones, and citizen-sourced reports to maintain the city’s appearance.
Smart monitoring: Through the use of IoT-integrated devices, the platform will monitor manhole covers for damage and improper angle of placement, public bathrooms for undesirable odors, and park soil temperatures and pH levels.
24-hour city monitoring and smart dispatching: Supplementing the above monitoring capabilities, the platform will also be able to dispatch the proper city employees or officials (e.g. from the parks department, sanitation department, municipal government, etc.) to resolve issues as they occur or are discovered.
There are several levels of increasing scope that this pilot project falls under.
First, there’s the comprehensive management platform for Hainan, which will form an interconnected network of platforms both at the provincial level and in individual cities and towns. This is just one of the platforms that will ultimately be built; learnings from this one will be applied to the other platforms as they’re built.
Above that is the much more massive “Smart Hainan” initiative (智慧海南), which consists of the above-mentioned management platform project among many other provincial projects.
On a larger, more conceptual level, the Smart Hainan plan falls under China’s national-level initiatives for digitalization and informatization (信息化), which are focused on urban environments in the government’s push for “smart cities.” Smart city projects use new information technology such as cloud computing, IoT, and big data to help improve urban planning and automate city management. In recent years, China’s smart city initiative has been characterized by centralized planning and localized implementations,6 such as the Smart Hainan project.
What is the Smart Hainan project?
The Smart Hainan project, according to a planning document published by the provincial government in 2020,7 aims to boost the province's economic and social development through the implementation of dozens of large-scale projects through the year 2025.
The plan defines 34 concrete projects contributing to the overall Smart Hainan framework, which are grouped into 10 distinct initiatives. These initiatives include a provincial “smart brain” (智慧大脑), a series of efforts boosting Hainan’s 5G and IoT infrastructure, and a “modern administration and smart supervision” project that encompasses seven different platforms — among these platforms is the comprehensive management platform that the Wenchange pilot program belongs to.
Below is the plan’s description of Hainan’s comprehensive city management platform:
Explore artificial-intelligence-driven city management methods.
Using the foundation of existing work for informatizing city management, build comprehensive management service platforms at the provincial level as well as in every city.
Implement a Hainan city management platform built on a single connected network; strengthen the comprehensive planning ability of city management; and elevate the level of scientific, granular, and smart city management. Popularize crowdsourced administration methods such as “impromptu filming” (随手拍),8 and encourage the population to actively take part in the collective development and administration of Hainan's cities.
Launch normalized patrolling using smart equipment such as drones. Explore smart predictive administrative methods based on artificial intelligence. Build a “comprehensive situation”9 administrative system using accurate monitoring, spontaneous discovery, and smart management and punishment.
How is Alibaba Cloud involved?
As mentioned above, Alibaba Cloud won its bid to handle the software and hardware aspects of the first stage of Hainan’s comprehensive city management platform.
According to the Smart Hainan plan, the construction of the management platform is divided into two stages. The first stage, which is currently in motion, consists of building the initial provincial-, county-, and city-level platforms. The future second stage of the project will consist of enriching these platforms through specialized monitoring efforts as well as enriching a “comprehensive database” (综合数据库).
While the bidding and planning documents do not elaborate on Alibaba Cloud’s contributions to this project beyond “software development and hardware,”10 it's a fair assumption that they will build out the cloud infrastructure for the unified network that will form the foundation of the provincial management system.
It’s also worth noting that Alibaba Cloud has taken part in other government-level cloud projects in Hainan. According to the China National Radio article previously mentioned, Alibaba Cloud has also participated in building a provincial health insurance information platform, a “city brain” (城市大脑) for Haikou, and a “citizen cloud” (市民云).
Projects such as the Haikou city brain and citizen cloud were built using a hybrid cloud model, which flexibly integrates private cloud, public cloud, and on-premises infrastructure.11 It’s possible that Alibaba Cloud will apply this same strategy to Hainan’s city management platform.
As this pilot project makes further progress and other management platforms are built throughout Hainan Province, we’ll likely see further and more specific examples of how Alibaba Cloud is building out a unified cloud infrastructure to serve as a foundation for these platforms.
In addition, recent state-led projects such as the national cloud (国家云) and state enterprise cloud (国资云) have used state-owned enterprises such as China Telecom to build out their cloud infrastructure. It's unsure now whether the increased use of state-owned enterprises will become a trend in China's cloud market or whether their role will be restricted to niche areas of the market.12 However, Alibaba Cloud's involvement in the Smart Hainan project provides a contrasting example of a private cloud company taking an active role in a major government project.
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For more details, refer to the previous Cloudology article “What is China’s ‘National Cloud’?” (8/10/2022).
As the term implies, this term refers to a crowdsourced model for discovering positive behavior as well as violations of the law. According to the term’s Baidu Baike page, “impromptu filming” has been carried out on a local level through online platforms in Harbin, Beijing, and elsewhere, e.g. for traffic violations.
A more literal translation of the term used here, “一盘棋,” refers to the “whole board” in a game of chess.
More context: the original document soliciting bids for the project listed the following project areas: A) software development and hardware, B) monitoring and supervision services, C) third-party testing, and D) safety evaluation.