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Yan Li (ESSEC Asia-Pacific): "Open source and Big Data are the backbones of Smart Cities"

Paris - Published Monday, March 19, 2018 - 17:10 - #115739 "Open Source is not only a technological movement, but also has huge impact on mentality, political and legal issues (e.g. copyleft v.s. copyright). Its profound influence on the current technological landscape could never be overlooked. If you ask me “Is smart city possible without open source?” My answer will be “Without open source, we were not sure if the trajectory of the development of IoT or big data anlytics would still be the same, and all these technologies are the backbones of smart cities”", Yan Li, professor at Essec Business School Asia-Pacific at Singapore, explains to News Tank.

"EU, compared with the United States and governments in Asia, tend to have a much tighter regulation on protection of personal data, due to historical and mentality reasons. Personal data may be collected, stored and used across board in a pro-business, permissive environment in cities in the United States and Asia for the value of this informaion capital. However, this is harder for enterprises in European cities, especially after the enforcement of GDPR in may 2018".

Yan Li answers to News Tank.
Yan Li, professor at Essec Business School Asia-Pacific - © RH
Yan Li, professor at Essec Business School Asia-Pacific - © RH

How can we define, by your point of view, a “connected city” or a “smart city” ? What is the part of “buzz-word” and the part of real process ?

The concept of smart city originally came from Cicso’s Connected Urban Development Program pushed by the Clinton Foundation in 2005 and the following Smarter Planet initiative launched by IBM in 2008. The initial definition of smart city was rather narrow which focused on the technological aspect of the use of networks, sensors and analytics to make cities more efficient, productive and habitable. While the current definition is much broader and more emphasis was put on the role of technology in the sustainability of cities, in terms of economic, social and environmental development. 

According to my colleague, Sylvain Remy, an expert of smart city at ESSEC Business School, “The definition of smart city is so broad that it could include everything and nothing. From hardware for street lighting, to sensors in pipes and Uber cars collecting information about citizens’ transportation routes… the concept of smart city involves not only infrastructures, but also knowledge, and people who use the city and people who govern the city. We did see cases where city governs use “smart city” as a buzz word to attract investment from both public and private sectors, while in other cities, the smart transformation is more concrete. And the development of smart city across the world is very unbalanced.

What are the common elements and differences between Asia and Europe, in the developpement of the Smart Cities ? Do you think, there are different models and how can we define them, especially in terms of personal data ?

In Asia, new cities bypass legacy systems and jump directly to the latest technologiesBased on the different history of urban development in European and Asian cities, they face different opportunities and challenges in the transformation process to smart cities. In Europe, a lot of patch fitting in old cities and adaptions of the old system to the new generation of technologies could not be avoided in their transformation to smarter cities. While in Asia, more new cities are being built and more new systems are being implemented which provide a leap-frogging opportunity for these cities to bypass legacy systems and jump directly to the latest technologies. However with the new development in some super high-density cities in Asia, new problems such as urban pollution could not be avoided, while the European urban development put more emphasis on sustainbility.

How do you analyse, the general data protection regulation of the European Union ? With GDPR, EU isn’t playing against itself ?

Privacy as we knew it in the past is no longer feasible…EU, compared with the United States and governments in Asia, tend to have a much tighter regulation on protection of personal data, due to historical and mentality reasons. Personal data may be collected, stored and used across board in a pro-business, permissive environment in cities in the United States and Asia for the value of this informaion capital. However, this is harder for enterprises in European cities, especially after the enforcement of GDPR in May 2018, which is in two months of time. If we believe data has become the raw material of the current information era, the EU governments have to admit that restricting enterprises in its own country from applying personal data may dial down their ability to compete in one of the fastest-growing segments of the global economy. Restricting access to data in today’s economy is akin to regulating land use during the agricultural age or regulating what factory owners can build during industrialization. There is a clear trade-off between market rational and economic opportunity of personal data and threat to personal liberty and human dignity and safety. The EU governments have to balance between these two aspects. After all, as it was mentioned by Margo Seltzer, a CS Professor at Harvard in 2015, “Privacy as we knew it in the past is no longer feasible… how we conventionally think of privacy is dead.”

Regarding with your publications, dealing with the “open source”, how do you consider this content ? Do you think that the smart city is possible without “open source” ?

To answer this question, we need to trace back to the origin of Open Source Initiative in 1998 or even the Free Software Movement in the late 80s, which promoted the freedom of software exchange and modification, in contrast to proprietary software, which is represented by Microsoft. Open Source is not only a technological movement, but also has huge impact on mentality, political and legal issues (e.g. copyleft v.s. copyright). Its profound influence on the current technological landscape could never be overlooked. If you ask me “Is smart city possible without open source?” My answer will be “Without open source, we were not sure if the trajectory of the development of IoT or big data anlytics would still be the same, and all these technologies are the backbones of smart cities.”

Actually, most current smart city development is based on open source technologies in terms of data selection, infrastruture design for data storage, data analytics, real-time communication among devices on different platforms.

Transport, retail… A lot of sectors which physically structured the urban planning and cities organisation are disrupted or hustled by new actors ? How do you think cities leaders must act ?

The technological force is so powerful that it will come to transform you no matter you want to be transformed or notAs I’ve mentioned in my digital transformation strategy workshop, while a lot of people consider digital technology as an opportunity, other people feel it is a threat or disruption. City leaders also have devided views. We have seen numerous cases in which cities or enterprises resisted changes in this digital wave and how they were left behind in the digtal transformation. In my view, it doesn’t matter whether the city leaders choose to embrace the changes proactively or just act as being blind to what is going on, because the technological force is so powerful that it will come to transform you no matter you want to be transformed or not. Just ask my 70-year-old mum in Nanjing, China why she started to use Wechat pay this year. She will tell you “I don’t have a choice in a city where cash is rarely used.”

How AI revolution can impact life of cities and citizens, in the short and long term ?

Technological unemployment is nothing newThis is a topic I can spend 2 whole days to talk about. Generally speaking, life of cities and citizens will be fundamentally altered by AI technolgy. Huge anxiety has been built up about AI’s role in our society and a big question mark is whether we will be replaced. As we all know, technological unemployment is nothing new. If we look back at history: first, the mechanization of agriculture vaporized millions of jobs and drove crowds of unemployed farmhands into cities in search of factory work. Later, automation and globalization pushed workers out of the manufacturing sector and into new service jobs. And now, AI and robots are coming to take out humans in service and knowledge positions. People always ask if this time is different? Will human beings find new agenda for ourselves to keep us relevant? Rather than being too pesimistic about this view of “machine replacement”, I tend to agree with what Elon Musk said in 2017 about “machine augmentation”: “Merger of biological intelligence and machine intelligence would be necessary for humans to compete with machines. People would need to become cyborgs to be relevant in a future dominated by AI.” Therefore, should we, sapiens, the dominant species on earth, proud citizens of glorious cities, be worried about our irreversible destinations, or shall we cherish and celebrate, maybe the last several generations of being pure humans? I choose the latter.

Yan Li

Profile n° 29511, created on 19/03/18 at 14:14 - updated on 19/03/18 at 16:32

Yan Li



Career From Until
Essec Business School
Professeur / Professor September 2016 Today
September 2016 Today
Essec Business School
Vice-doyenne (Asie-Pacifique) / Associate Dean of Faculty (Asia-Pacific) 2013 Today
2013 Today
Essec Business School
Professeur associé / Associate Professor September 2013 at August 2016
September 2013 August 2016
Essec Business School
Professeur assistant / Assistant Professor September 2007 at June 2013
September 2007 June 2013

Essec Business School

Profile n° 6790, created on 19/03/18 at 14:31 - updated on 19/03/18 at 14:57

Essec Business School

Graduate School of Economics and Business Studies
- 4 campus: France (Cergy, Paris-La Défense), Singapore and Morocco
• Founded in 1907
• Number of students: 5.330 in initial training from 96 nationalities, 5.000 managers in continuing education
• Number of teachers: 158 permanent teachers from 36 nationalities
• President : Vincenzo Esposito Vinzi
• Contact : Nicolas Burckel, Head of Business Sector at Essec
• Phone number : +(33)1 34 43 30 00 (Cergy-Pontoise)



Essec Business School
3 avenue Bernard Hirsch
95021 Cergy pontoise Cedex - FRANCE
Telephone : 01 34 43 30 00
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