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Wuzhen showcases transformation of ancient towns

Author  :  LIU MING     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-08-10

In 2014, China’s State Council, for the first time, laid out basic principles, objectives and milestones in a national plan to guide the country’s urbanization from now until 2020. It also detailed the standards for small town preservation, development, utilization and the adoption of modern technology, such as the internet and information technology, to transform old towns into smart cities.

Smart towns will rely on modern technological tools including mobile internet, the internet of things, and cloud computing to integrate informatization, industrialization and agricultural modernization, eventually making people’s lives more convenient and comfortable. 

From isolated village to smart town

In terms of formation and social functions, ancient towns in China can be further divided into villager settlement clusters, regional economic and trade centers, primary-industry towns, military towns, and cultural landscape towns. On the whole, these centuries-old historical sites are plagued with aging buildings, inadequate infrastructure, inefficient information flows and poor public services. They are in desperate need of revitalization.

In this light, Wuzhen, an ancient town in Zhejiang province, entered the global and national spotlight at the third World Internet Conference (WIC) in November 2016, showing a path by which small towns in China can accomplish smart evolution. 

Wuzhen is a classic water town in the region south of the Yangtze River that is well known for its cultural landscape. It has made great strides toward becoming a smart city since 2014, when it was designated the permanent site of the WIC.

In its latest conceptual planning blueprint, Wuzhen drew a sketch of “a symbiotic city in the internet age” featuring the integration of man and nature, man and man, online and offline, and past and present in an effort to achieve common construction, sharing and governance. 

As part of its efforts to utilize smart technology, Wuzhen plans to build a big data laboratory, an online Wuzhen intelligent operation center, a Customer Interaction Management (CIM) platform for urban and rural information as well as a complete data and industrial chain.

With urban and rural construction at the core, Wuzhen’s planning covers several different specialized areas, such as industrial development strategy, functional spatial layout, big data dynamic monitoring and appraisal, intelligent infrastructure construction and digital management of various public facilities, which will all be based on a common database and coordinated on the CIM platform. 

At the same time, Wuzhen plans to build an online public participation platform that allows government, specialists and the general public to carry out real-time discussions and revise regulations accordingly.

As a typical water town, Wuzhen’s plan for intelligent infrastructure has a different focus compared to that of other historical towns. It is planning a water-monitoring system to achieve automated regulation of its water resources. Though the deployment of smart technologies lacked cohesiveness in the past, Wuzhen plans to integrate intelligent drainage, environmental management, energy regulation and smart grid technology, so the town can realize comprehensive and unified governance. 

In tourism, Wuzhen plans to establish a comprehensive system of intelligent services that unifies online and offline functions. Through big data mining and integration, the town aims to provide visitors with a deeper experience and interactive tourism services. As the permanent venue for the WIC, Wuzhen plans to highlight the theme of internet innovation to add to the tourism appeal of its ancient architecture.

Scientific planning

In general, the smart transformation of historical Chinese towns focuses on infrastructure and public services, promoting overall industrial upgrading. However, in practice, each town needs to take into account its unique industrial foundation, cultural heritage and natural resources to fully explore its advantages in the modern transition.

Scientific planning is crucial to the development of historical towns. Nestled among mountains and along the banks of rivers, old towns are largely located in scenic landscapes with advanced transportation systems, while each ancient town has its own distinct cultural characteristics. Therefore, the development of ancient towns should first consider preservation and then explore a people-oriented path tailored to their needs. 

To revitalize historical sites, it is necessary to inject momentum through information infrastructure, such as increasing access to broadband, enlarging wireless internet coverage and improving the informatization of government affairs.

Based on the distinctive features of each town, diverse databases containing information resources, GIS geographic information, tourism resources and multimedia should be constructed to improve the quality of tourist experiences. However, it is important to preserve the town’s original essence and guard against over-modernization in the process. 

Industrial upgrade

Regardless of type, all ancient towns hold rich architectural and cultural legacies that attract flocks of tourists. Thus, tourism is a pillar industry to drive local economic development. With the aid of the internet and other high-tech tools, smart tourism could enhance tourism experiences in terms of dining, housing and shopping.

In this aspect, ancient towns should work closely with internet firms and adopt online marketing, payment, apps and new media publicity to promote the “internet plus tourism” model of development. 

Also, ancient towns should strive to realize comprehensive WiFi coverage and set up mobile terminals to publish real-time information on various tourist destinations. With the rapid development of online payment, online services and marketing will be new economic growth point for ancient towns in the era of smart tourism.

Smart medical care is also vital for old town transformation because beautiful environments and fresh air have the natural edge to attract older adults. Therefore, it would be an effective path to provide smart medical care and convenient life services for the elderly group in ancient towns’ smart transformation. 

Through various sensor terminals and computer networks, ancient towns need to better help the senior population. For example, it could use convenient pagers, ECG monitors and other equipment to monitor a senior’s blood pressure, heart rate, blood oxygen and other physiological indicators and send the data directly to the medical service center, so that once abnormalities are detected, intelligent systems will immediately start telemedicine procedures to meet the medical needs of the elderly.

At the same time, ancient towns need to work on increasing employment opportunities for young people. Currently, the labor markets of cities has been disrupted by the internet, which has great implications for the development of small towns, especially the ancient towns with historical resources, humanistic values and cultural attractions. 

Ancient towns should not be confined to tourism and retirement resorts. They should proactively create opportunities for young workers. Local governments need to not confine themselves to managing scenic spots. Comprehensive governance is needed to break administrative barriers and encourage an integrated development model.

All in all, ancient towns should transit from a ticket economy to an industrial economy; from closed tourism to “tourism plus;” from single tourism enterprises to a sharing society with multiple players, thus leading to a pattern transformation that attracts more young people to stay in ancient towns. 

In sum, the modern transformation of ancient Chinese towns needs to rely on scientific planning and advanced technological tools to step into an era of smart development.


Liu Ming is from the Library of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Editor: Yu Hui

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