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Hangzhou City Brain


The Hangzhou Municipal Government has created the Hangzhou City Brain (HCB), a comprehensive platform for big data, to improve the management and delivery of public infrastructure services. This Hangzhou smart city project links numerous government databases to act as a centralized database and also connects to many real-time data sources, such as traffic lights. With the help of AI technology, the HCB gathers and processes billions of data records, with new records being added on a daily basis. This allows city administrators with AI co-pilots to make informed decisions in real-time and stay updated on the city's operations. Additionally, to foster the development of smart city operations, approved projects can access this part of the database to address the city’s pressing issues.

Key Characteristics

Comprehesive Project. This is a comprehensive project that aims to encompass every possible application of smart city projects. Some projects might just focus on sustainability, and some other projects might focus on IOT deployment. This Hangzhou project touches on areas from traffic management to business license issuance.

Government-led Development Approach.
The process of designing and implementing this project is a heavily top-down approach. The pressure to start this project starts from the national level where the decision party agrees that digitalization is a way to continue the modernization of the country. Then, the implementation trickles down to the provincial level, and later to the city level in which Hangzhou is in.

One Tech Vendor.
Close cooperation with mainly one technology vendor. The vibrant technology scene in Hangzhou is often attributed to Alibaba, which has its headquarters in Hangzhou. In this project, Alibaba is the powerhouse of the technology from data platforms to advance analytics algorithm that enables all the smart city application.

Goals and Aspirations

Centralization of Data. In one city, different data is stored in different government departments, such as transportation or commerce. Hangzhou Smart Brain aims to concentrate all the data in one database.

Digitalization of Government Service. The inefficiency of the government service has been a headache for both the citizen and the government. In some instances, to get a business license, a citizen might need to head different governmental departments many times. The project aims to streamline the process.

Digitalization of physical infrastructure. The digitalization of physical infrastructure increases the efficiency of running the city. For example, digitalizing physical infrastructure like traffic lights using IoT enhances traffic management, reduces congestion, improves public safety, and informs urban planning decisions through data analysis.

Technology Interventions

Smart Traffic. Hangzhou's smart traffic management system, popularly known as the "City Brain," has been launched to improve urban traffic control through the use of AI and big data. The system collects real-time data from various sources such as traffic lights, cameras, and vehicle GPS systems to monitor and manage the flow of traffic. With its intelligent algorithms, the system can adjust traffic light timings to reduce congestion, identify optimal routes for emergency vehicles, and even detect traffic violations. This advanced technology is expected to contribute significantly to creating a safer and more efficient urban environment.

Digitalization of Governement Service. The centralization of the database serves as the foundation for digitalizing government services. When the data is siloed between departments, a citizen might need to visit many different departments to get verification and approval for a simple task. With the centralization of data, every department has the required data to help citizens accomplish the task without sending them to other departments.

COVID-19 Health Code. Because of the pre-existing technology foundation, including IoT, computing centers, and government apps, Hangzhou quickly rolls out the Health Code application to manage the spread of the COVID-19 virus within a few months of the outbreak. Though controversial, the application played a central role during the pandemic control from 2020 to 2022.


Government. Government plays a leading role in proposing the main goals of the project and coordinating different parties involved. Hangzhou Government

Alibaba. As the main technology vendor of the city, Alibaba helps implement Hangzhou Smart Brain. After the onset of the project, the Hangzhou government and Alibaba established a joint venture to handle the development. Alibaba Cloud

Citizens. Citizens are the primary users and beneficiaries of the improved public services and quality of life these initiatives offer. Their feedback, engagement, and adoption of new technologies are crucial for the success and sustainability of smart city transformations.


Traffic System Engineer.

Personnel involved in implementing the smart traffic system. Preferred not to disclose identity.

Less Congestion. Traffic congestion improved significantly after the implementation of the system. During the most congested time, the city often sends police standing under the light to manage the traffic flow. Now, the traffic camera + AI can take this tedious task off the shoulder of police officers.

Emergency Vehicle. With the remote control of the traffic light, the efficiency of emergency vehicles, such as ambulances and fire trucks increased drastically. The algorithm can optimize the traffic turning to ensure that those vehicles are not blocked by red lights.

Future Possible Application. With the smart infrastructure in place, the Smart City Brain can be employed to tackle other issues other than traffic congestion. One possible solution is the share the data with a logistics company to allow e-commerce firms to provide a better shipping experience.


The funding comes from the infrastructure spending budget of the Hangzhou. For the last decades, infrastructure development is a major task of the government. As the building of physical infrastructure construction nears completion, the marginal benefit of continued investment in physical infrastructure decreases. Then, the government looks to smart infrastructure to continue the development of the city.


Improving Congestion. After the deployment of the smart traffic management system, congestion issues in China improved significantly. The system can react to real-tier traffic and other accident information to optimize light signaling. Before the implementation of the system, Hangzhou was the 5th most congested city in China. After the implementation, Hangzhou dropped to 57th on the list.

Streamlining of Government Services.

One of the goals during the first version of the Hangzhou Smart Brain plan was around the slogan "only once," referring to the need for citizens to approach any government’s physical office only once to accomplish any task. Now, close to 97% of public tasks have been completed with only one visit to a government office. However, a new goal was made, which is deemed “Not Even Once,” meaning that citizens should be able to accomplish most tasks without visiting the physical office because of the mass adoption of smartphones.

Open Questions

Top-down vs. Bottom-up Planning Different cities went on different routes to finalize their planning. Some heavily consult citizens early in the process, while other governments identify the most pressing issues in the city and address them with the newest technologies.

Efficiency vs. Privacy. Centralization of data serves as the foundation for the project. While this centralized database has enabled numerous highly useful applications, the privacy and security of personal data has come into question.

Equity. Without public engagement during the process of designing, planning, and implementing, smart city projects need to ensure other mechanisms in place to ensure minorities are protected.


Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

Case Study Geography

Hangzhou City Brain