Dusseldorf When Edwin Diender talks about the cities of the future, he sounds like a doctor. Just as a nervous system runs through the body, every house, organization and person in the smart city should be digitally networked. “And in order to keep the organism alive,” says Diender, “a functioning heart is needed.” In this case, it just consists of black server cabinets.
Diender is Chief Digital Transformation Officer (CDO) at the technology group Huawei in Shenzhen, China. He advises authorities on how best to digitize cities. And one of these cities is 9000 kilometers from Shenzhen.
Like almost all cities in the Ruhr area, Duisburg recognized the opportunities of digital transformation – and realized that it requires different knowledge and resources. Some cities therefore rely on partnerships with local companies and universities, others also team up with international technology groups. Dortmund is cooperating with the US company Cisco – and Duisburg with Huawei.
It is the unusual combination of two very different partners: on the one hand, a city in debt with 500,000 inhabitants who is struggling with the end of the coal and steel age. On the other hand, a global technology group with 190,000 employees and sales of more than 100 billion euros.
Unusually, as this connection is, it could be a model for the future in which little can be done without the support of large tech companies in the public sector. So who helps such a partnership more? And why Huawei?
Above all: What exactly do the two do together? It’s not that easy to answer. The City of Mayor Sören Link signed the letter of intent with Huawei in January 2018, initially not wanting the city to issue – so as not to reveal any “business and trade secrets”.
Users of the “Ask the State” online portal then put pressure on the city, and in July 2019 the city gave way. The flowery “Memorandum of Understanding” states that it is a “non-binding cooperation framework” for “discussion purposes”. Huawei wants to participate in an “innovative information and communication technology solution with partner ecosystem” and develop “projects for intelligent and safe cities”. But what does that mean, please?
If you want to get to know Huawei’s ideal version of an intelligent and safe city, you will find it in the north of Shenzhen. Electric taxis and buses whisper quietly on the streets, 230,000 sensors and 3,300 facial recognition cameras capture the action. Everything is controlled from a control center with technology from Huawei.
If the data center is the heart of the smart city, the Intelligent Operation Center is the brain, says CDO Diender. He is standing in front of a huge screen with a 3-D card with green, yellow, red and blue zones on it. On the top left is the date: January 10, 2020, 2:57 p.m., 26 degrees Celsius, including a public safety index, currently at 90 out of 100 points. Almost everything that can be measured around the security of the district is displayed: crime cases, police stations, factories.
Diender now controls the screen display with the mouse as if he were navigating through the Sim City computer game. He can visualize all events in real time: Where does a traffic jam occur? How long do you have to wait at a construction site? Where is the air polluted? He zooms in on an intersection full of cameras. One records who drives too fast; another recognizes the number plates; others notice who crosses the street despite red traffic lights or who changes lanes too quickly. All this information is linked: which car with which license plate has driven too fast? Who violated traffic rules?
Duisburg Mayor Sören Link also took a look at the Intelligent Operation Center. However, he does not dream of all-round surveillance, but of smart street lights and WiFi in all classrooms. In order to become a smart city, he put together a network of private and public actors: the University of Duisburg-Essen, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the business association for Duisburg – and Huawei. This is the only way to generate innovative and creative ideas that make the city fit for the future, says Link. You also benefit from other experiences: “Including a global player is only helpful here.”
How this works can be observed in a waterworks on the city limits of Düsseldorf. Markus Schneider pushes a trolley with three wheels in front of him, on which six cameras and four laser scanners are attached – the “most expensive rollator in Duisburg”, says the computer scientist. On the screen attached to the trolley, he observes in real time how the system captures the surroundings in seconds and creates a 3D floor plan.
Schneider shows the result on a canvas: With a click of the mouse, he can navigate through a virtual view of the waterworks. This is how Schneider and his team record Duisburg schools and the town hall. Citizens should be able to navigate virtually through authorities, and the fire brigade can better plan escape and evacuation routes.
The data flows into the Rhine Cloud. And this is where Huawei comes in: the group developed the cloud platform together with the IT service provider DU-IT, a subsidiary of the Duisburg supply company. The data of all smart city applications in the city come together on the platform. Huawei also brokered the contact to the Munich start-up, which manufactures the 3D scan trolley. The group is virtually involved in all Smart City activities in Duisburg.
The cooperation initially applies to five years, almost like a temporary marriage. It is an important step for the company. Europe is an important market and a cultural landmark. This is also reflected in the new research and development campus in the north of Shenzhen. The company has built a miniature version of Europe over nine square kilometers. Thousands of employees ride an electric tram based on the Swiss model Jungfraubahn over the Budapest Liberty Bridge, past parks, fountains and a replica of Versailles. A replica of Heidelberg Castle is enthroned directly on the shore of a large lake.
You can find it cheesy or megalomaniac. Above all, it is an expression of deep admiration for European architecture, art, music and the culture of ideas. When German cities rely on partnership, that’s an honor for Huawei.
For all those who already have doubts about the trustworthiness of the group, this is just one more argument for distrust. For more than a year, the example of 5G technology has been used to discuss the extent to which the company could gain insight into German data or even pass it on to the Chinese state.
Huawei denies the allegations. The company “never has and will never do anything that jeopardizes or compromises the security of its customers’ networks and data,” he said officially. Is it about data security or about US foreign trade policy? The allegations are not really cleared up. But they are a burden for collaborations like the one with Duisburg.
Martin Murrack, treasurer and head of digitization in the city, sees no reason for distrust. In his office, he tells the story of a shared history with China: the New Silk Road ends at the port, up to 40 trains arrive every week with clothing or electronic parts from China, and the goods are redistributed from Duisburg. Around 100 Chinese companies have settled in the city. And Huawei? “They have no interest in our data at all,” says Murrack. The group only wants to sell hardware.
Jan Weidenfeld sees it differently. He is a security expert at the Mercator Institute for China Research in Berlin. Huawei’s commitment is part of the Chinese strategy: “Investments in a city are always gladly sold as a package.” The Chinese state has great influence on its national champions – even if Huawei repeatedly emphasizes that it is a private, independent company.
Martin Murrack emphasizes that the city has worked intensively on the security of its data. That is why she also has her own data center on Duisburg soil. Servers built in by Huawei can be exchanged for those of other providers at any time. As long as the German government does not fundamentally exclude Huawei as a technology partner, the city will stick to the partnership.
This is the problem of cooperation in the high-tech sector: you will only really be able to evaluate it when facts have been created. It will take a while. It is an opportunity for Duisburg to reposition itself: as a city of smart services instead of cold coal.
The research was funded by a grant from the Association for Research and Reportage e.V. from the non-profit Brost Foundation.
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