Building an elderly friendly smart city in China

September 18, 2023 22:26
Shanghai. Bloomberg

According to data company Statista, China invested RMB8.07 trillion in building smart cities within the six years from 2015 to 2020. However, in recent years, the development of smart cities in the mainland has encountered many challenges, one of these being the accelerating ageing of the population, which requires optimising urban planning.

The 2020 National Census found that the average age of the population was 38.8 years old (compared with 38 in the United States and 28 in India). At the same time, the population aged 60 and overreached 18% (260 million people) which constitutes a high proportion. And the ageing trend has accelerated significantly in recent years.

Between 2010 and 2020, the portion of people aged 60 and over increased by 5%, compared to just 2% in the previous decade. Sixteen of the country's 31 provinces have more than 5 million people aged 65 and over.

One of the measures taken by the authorities responded was to gradually increase the statutory retirement age to reduce the impact of a shrinking working population and take advantage of the knowledge, experience and skills of the elderly. As many as 36.69 million people (13.9%) aged 60 and above have a high school education or above.

In addition, the government has expanded smart city development to grassroots communities, such as increasing investment in public services and healthcare in the counties, and upgrading infrastructure in large cities, including adding elevators to older residential buildings as residents age.

Some large companies have also cooperated with governments to provide “smart elder care”. In Shandong Province, for example, the government has formed partnership with private companies to set up an online hospital to provide a series of services. They include consultations with doctors, diagnosis, prescriptions, disease management and other follow-up services. During the pandemic, this was particularly useful as the service both saved patients from in-person hospital visits and reduced pressure on the healthcare system.

To better address ageing and urbanisation, the World Bank published “Silver Hues: Building Age-Ready Cities” in April 2022, which suggests that the mainland needs to prioritise the following three issues to enable the elderly to reach their full potential:

1. Improving accessibility standards in cities so that universal design is no longer an optional or afterthought. This requires compliance by urban planners, architects with further training of construction engineers and related professionals.

2. Equal attention needs to be paid to the construction of new facilities and the renovation of old ones. It is recommended to use public-private partnership (PPP) to raise funds for retrofitting old buildings.

3. In terms of funding allocation for building "age-friendly cities", the government should pay special attention to ageing residents in rural areas where the proportion of people aged 60 and above is 23% in the 2020 Census, nearly 8% higher than that for urban areas. Innovative solutions such as low-cost medical technology should be encouraged.

I hope that China's smart city development can improve quality of life so that citizens everywhere can experience the benefits of advanced technology as soon as possible. At the same time, as President Xi Jinping has outlined the people-centric development direction, it is advisable for the authorities to increase citizens' participation in the municipality and brainstorm to better leverage the benefits of smart cities, leading the mainland to become a model for other countries.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong