Story and photos by Crystal Wilde
Nanjing, a megacity in Jiangsu province on China’s east coast, has reinvented itself many times, having served as the capital of various dynasties, kingdoms and republic governments since the 3rd century AD. Starting out as an agricultural hub in the Three Kingdoms period (220-280) before moving into textiles by the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) and heavy industry after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s, the Nanjing of today is forging forward on a new high-tech path. Innovation can be seen everywhere here, from automated factory production lines, to digitalized outdoor exercise parks, to classrooms equipped with smart blackboards and other tech-assisted learning aids.
Nanjing Tech Week — which brought together industry leaders for a five-day celebration of all things digital between June 21 and 25 — is testament to the enduring and ever-evolving nature of the city of 9.3 million. Each year, experts gather at the Nanjing International Exhibition Center to discuss the latest industry developments, while outreach programs are held across the city, introducing residents and visitors alike to some of the most exciting local innovations.
Occupying an island in the Yangtze River to the west of the city center is the Jiangxinzhou Smart Cube Autonomous Driving Technology Center, an international industrial park developed in partnership with the government of Singapore. An army of L4 self-driving minibuses, taxis and street sweepers, developed by Chinese smart mobility unicorn WeRide, ferries workers to their offices and keeps the green-scaped, ultra-low-density environment pristine. As one of the first places in China to allow fully autonomous vehicles to drive on normal roads, it is hoped this tiny 15-square-kilometer innovation hub will serve as a blueprint for the rest of the country
“Autonomous driving vehicles will guarantee better security and safety on China’s roads, because they will always comply with the rules and allow city planners to better arrange the traffic flow,” said Sun Wen of the island’s smart transportation department. Predicting that the majority of buses in China will be fully autonomous by 2030, he added, “Nanjing is an innovative city, and we are very eager to embrace and apply new technologies to improve the living standards of our people.”
Companies from elsewhere in China were also drawn to Nanjing Tech Week in a bid to showcase their wares to both industry insiders and the city’s increasingly tech-savvy population. In an outreach show space at a glitzy mall, Hangzhou-based optical tech company Guangli demonstrated its debut augmented reality (AR) glasses, due for release in September. Adaptable for daily entertainment, such as playing video games and watching 3D movies, as well as for remote medical consultations, security purposes and use in the classroom, the smart specs are already being trialed at Hangzhou Airport, where they are being used to quickly check the body temperature of arriving passengers.
“Nanjing Tech Week is great for us as we get to introduce our products to a lot of end users and even kids,” said Guangli sales director Jack Chan. “It’s especially important for children to try AR because they are our future, whether they become a user of the technology or end up joining us to help develop it.”
Even big international players are benefiting from the exposure the event brings. S&P 500-listed American company A. O. Smith first established a presence in Nanjing in 1995 as part of a joint venture with a local firm. Today, the manufacturer of water purifiers, air purifiers and water heaters has three Nanjing plants, which together account for $1 billion of the company’s total revenue of $3 billion. As A. O. Smith seeks to move into the Internet of Things (IoT) arena, it hopes to use Nanjing Tech Week as a springboard to connect with partners in the smart home space.
“That’s the future for us, to move from a pure appliance manufacturer into an IoT innovator,” said A. O. Smith Senior Vice President Jack Qiu.
Insisting they have no plans to shift operations elsewhere despite political flashpoints between the U.S. and China and the rising cost of materials and labor, A. O. Smith is echoing its host country’s overarching strategy to move away from an ecosystem of cheap manufacturing and towards one of high-end development and innovation.
“Previously, China was the world’s factory, but with support for tech and innovation like we see in Nanjing, we believe it will be leading the world in the future,” said Qiu.