Helping China build its own intelligent digital dream

Updated: 2013-05-13 07:18

By Alex Atzberger (China Daily)

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Taking a subway in China today is a digital trip. I remember the first time I saw the wallpaper of a Shanghai subway station turned into a "digital" shelf. Simply scan the barcode of an item on the wallpaper and, by the time you get home, the product will be on its way to your door.

Furthermore, while riding the train, it is hard not to notice most people are leaning in to a digital screen. They are engrossed in micro blogs, playing games or messaging friends. Today more than half of all access to the Internet occurs through mobile devices. Technology has revolutionized the way the Chinese interact with the world.

We live in a time of great possibilities. The country's rapid adoption of new technologies, unhindered by outdated IT infrastructure, provides benefits today and in the future. Technology increases China's capacity to achieve the "Chinese dream" invoked by the new government.

At the center of this dream is the improvement of people's livelihoods. Great innovative ideas tend to be viral, spreading from organization to organization until they span entire industries and then trickle down to benefit all of us. These types of ideas are necessary, because China faces similar challenges as the rest of the world, but on a much larger scale.

New IT provides China with the opportunity to find new solutions to these problems and choose a different path from other nations. In the past, benefits of IT were often related to productivity and efficiency gains. But, for China, the most populous nation in the world, efficiency might not be the ultimate goal. Instead, we might aim to solve some of China's toughest challenges and help realize the Chinese dream.

Consider the massive migration of millions of Chinese to urban centers. Previously, city planners could only build brick-and-mortar stores and shopping malls to meet increasing demand.

Today China is on its way to becoming the largest e-commerce market in the world and this has profound implications on the development of its cities. It gives city planners more room to create parks, keep beautiful city centers and improve the quality of life, while embedding the benefits of e-commerce into the design of the city.

Or take the traffic situation during Chinese New Year. Every year when millions of Chinese return home for China's most important holiday, all transportation systems - from the highways to ticketing systems - buckle under the great load.

Advances in big data and cloud technologies can provide solutions. As vehicles become connected devices, traffic patterns can be optimized. Ask yourself, why do we have red lights at times when no cars are approaching? Likewise, when millions request a train ticket at the same time, cloud-based big data applications can scale up to meet the surge in demand.

The power of today's technologies makes it possible to collect, analyze and distribute large amounts of data from connected devices in true real time. China can apply this to improve food safety. With millions of items and hundreds of participants in the food supply chain, the source of an item can be hard to trace. At its core, this is a supply management problem. Advanced information systems can combine information from growers, vendors, suppliers, processors and retailers into a transparent, real-time system to address this challenge.

Is this all wishful thinking? One important development that has made this all possible is relatively cheap technology. Today's smartphones are more powerful than upscale PCs from a decade ago. And now powerful software solutions can be used on-premise, in the cloud or on mobile devices. We are more capable than ever of rethinking the potential of what is possible.

I am most excited about the countless entrepreneurs in China who are rethinking what is possible. These innovators will create new businesses that will leverage the power of IT in completely new ways. They will make the Chinese dream their own.

The author is a senior vice-president, head of fast growth markets and China growth plan at SAP, and one of the World Economic Forum's young global leaders for 2013.

(China Daily 05/13/2013 page20)