PEOPLE THINK the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is all about building physical infrastructure, such as roads and ports. Few are aware of the importance of information technology in this ambitious plan.
Technologies from data analytics to artificial intelligence play a big role in how industries develop, experts told a BRI forum here yesterday, as they made a case for the growing importance of this digital dimension of the BRI.
China, having seen first-hand the kind of dividends investments in technology pay, is now sharing its experience with other countries, said Mr Wu Hao, director-general of high-tech industry at the National Development and Reform Commission, the country's top economic planning agency.
He noted that the development of e-commerce had been crucial in reducing poverty and driving entrepreneurship in China: online retail turnover in rural areas exceeded 1.24 trillion |yuan (S$258 billion) last year, a 39 per cent increase over 2016, according to the |Ministry of Commerce. The e-commerce |sector today employs 28 million people in |rural areas, the result of the rapid expansion of online shops and warehouses outside the big cities.
“The digital economy is an area where what we don't know far exceeds what we know, so there are many opportunities where we can make deeper and broader pragmatic cooperation,” he added.
China has also used 3D modelling to create optimally designed infrastructure that can be built in less time, said Mr Christopher Liew, vice-president of American software firm Bentley Systems.
This tool can provide a three-dimensional picture and complete overview of a project or system.
Liew said it was especially useful when expansion works were carried out on the Meiguan expressway in Shenzhen.
This was because the project had to factor in eight flyovers and 3,700 underground pipes and be completed in nine months. The technology cut costs by 2.2 million yuan and shaved 43 days off design time.
Digitisation has also helped scale up new growth sectors, something Beijing is focused on in its pursuit of more advanced manufacturing capabilities.
Cathay Industrial Biotech, for instance, developed a technique to produce plastics and car fuel from farm crops.
But it had difficulty raising production because buying from more sources led to quality variance, said its chief executive officer Liu Xiu Cai.
"The complexity in dealing with diverse sources of materials is why the bio-materials industry has remained small," he said.
"But digitisation software and big data helped us control such variance."
German firm Siemens, which organised the forum, said this was the point: using technology to make hardware investments more viable and efficient in the long run.
"It's great to build a power plant or factory, but the Digital Silk Road is about how to make these things the most competitive assets possible," said Siemens Managing Board member overseeing Asia and Australia Cedrik Neike.