Adenergy is based in Shanghai, but you’re originally from Italy. What brought you to China? How did you get into green energy?
My link to energy has always been sustainability and renewable energy. When I first came to Asia, it fascinated me – the place was so full of change! I came back to China because I was very interested in renewable energy development here. That was 2007 and I’ve never left.
So you’ve spent more than a decade in Asia’s energy sector. What changes have you seen?
Ten years ago there was already work happening on renewable energy, but it was really a field for huge investors and the big five energy utilities. It was still a world where, no matter whether you invested in dirty energy or clean energy, the roles of the actors were very black and white: you were either an energy producer or an energy consumer. Now, you’re seeing a very significant shift in these roles. People can be producers and consumers, and also distributors of energy on a small scale. In China, I didn’t expect this to take place so fast, because energy is still mostly controlled by state-owned enterprises. But, there is a real change happening.
How far into this transformation is Asia?
Companies have already begun producing energy for themselves for some time. But I think we’re still in the infancy of the smart-grid movement. But it’s definitely growing and feeding into the development of smart cities.
How would you define a smart city, at its simplest?
It’s any area – maybe a city, maybe a zone inside a city – where most of the buildings and public spaces have “senses”, a bit like people have five senses. But in a smart city, these senses are digital; they come through sensors collecting all different kinds of information.
Then, all of the data coming through these sensors is interconnected. That means different systems and sectors of the city can access each others’ information and respond to it very dynamically.
So, one: you have huge data with a lot more context for understanding it. Two : you have adaptability – the different systems are learning from this huge data flow and making smart changes in real time.
What’s driving smart-city development? Is it about a new technology?
Actually, it’s mostly happening now because we’ve found better ways to use existing technologies. Also, because the tools to create a smart building - which are also the tools of a smart city - are becoming much cheaper and easier to deploy. So, you’re getting much more feedback and data, and not just from one narrow source or sector of industry.
What makes a smart city work?
It’s all about mapping. It’s about creating a map with many different layers of information, which continually updates and becomes more accurate. Then it’s about overlapping, connecting and putting in relations these different layers of information.
What kind of information does a smart city connect in its map?
If you think about all the mapping that happens in a city, it’s huge! People who work in energy are mapping all the points of consumption and production; hydraulics people are mapping all the tubes and pipes and where the water supply is going; cities are mapping fire departments, areas with higher risk, locations of emergency crews, and so on.
A smart city takes the maps and monitoring people already do. It takes the information out of its silos and makes it transparent and accessible. The key questions are: how precise can we make this map? And how precise is the context and filtering to get relevant info from this huge amount of data?
That’s a place where artificial intelligence and machine learning will help us make big advances.
So smart cities are possible because we’ve become much better at creating and using these detailed, dynamic maps?
Yes, and again, because of the big change in cost - a lot of this has been technically possible for years, but it was too expensive. The cost of smart technology has dropped so much recently, at this point, it’s almost a no-brainer to use it. I mean, you can deploy sensors everywhere, you can have a big flow of data.
I suppose having this huge source of data mean we can make better predictions and plans for energy use, right?
Yes, as long as you have the tools to make sense of all this data. When you’ve built a smart-city map which is really multi-layered and integrated; when you also have the platform to filter and manage all this data, then you get the context you need for better and better predictions.
So when you have an energy disruption, for example, the smart city gives you so much more context to understand what happened. Over time, as more of these events occur and are recorded with super detail and multiple layers of context, your understanding grows hugely. Then it’s a natural thing that predictions get better and better and can be made dynamically.
How long has this capacity existed?
In the past, all of this information was potentially available. The problem was that it was never connected; energy data stayed in its energy silo; transport data stayed in its transport silo, and so on. There’s only so much you can optimize within a silo. Smart cities change that.
In China, which cities are leading the way for smart cities?
Looking at China, I’d say Shenzhen and some districts of Chengdu - in fact, ADENENERGY is cooperating with the Chengdu government on this! Also, Shanghai and Beijing - all of them are taking a lot of initiatives. Hangzhou is another one. Going full-scale will take a whole change of infrastructure. I would say that will take 5 to 10 years to really deploy, but with investment, we will get there.
How about other Asian countries?
There’s an Asia-wide trend to improve the integration of data in cities. Singapore is really leading the way in smart-city development. You have a very high level of innovation and integration there. No other South-East Asian country is at that level, although all of them are working on it.
Bangkok is actively trialing smart city projects. Ho Chi Minh City is doing similar things in some districts – there will be new neighborhood they’re designing from scratch, to be smarter, to be integrated from the start.
Building a smart district from scratch sounds similar to some projects here in China.
Yes, China is one of the leaders in this type of development. They’ve had very significant and fast growth of their cities, and the government has been quite willing to test smart cities, to see what can be done in new developments.
Chinese cities are always under a lot of pressure because they’re so big and have grown so fast. This isn’t easy to manage because of the sheer scale, so city administrations generally understand that they need to use innovation and technology to manage this in the best way.
Actually, China has a real advantage, compared to the US and Europe, in terms of being able to start big developments with smart meters and infrastructure in place on day one.
Who’s driving China’s shift towards smart cities? Does it come more from the government or from the private sector?
It’s really a co-creation of government and businesses. Local governments are creating strong policies favoring smart integration of cities and buildings. They understand that being smart is a key item for competitiveness for the city and the country as a whole. And many governments provide financial incentives for innovative companies and research. The door is definitely open in China for any company or property manager looking to join the smart-city movement.
But actually, I would say the biggest engine of change is the growing relationship between the service providers and the citizens. In China nowadays, city dwellers are very mobile-oriented and tech-savvy. China is at the forefront of mobile technology, especially for commercial uses. That sets up an awareness and response from ordinary Chinese citizens which is extremely positive and feeds into more and more innovation.
That’s an interesting point, that ordinary people’s level of mobile use is such a big driver for smart cities. Can you say more about how that works?
Anybody who comes to China will feel right away how important service providers like WeChat and Taobao are in daily life. Mobile services have had such an overwhelming response and huge uptake from ordinary citizens, especially in the main cities. That’s spurred a huge level of innovation that goes beyond just the commercial sphere. It’s gone into offering more kinds of services and experiences through mobile, things like utilities and payment services.
Now China has a powerful mobile infrastructure, which is hugely important for the success of a smart city. Because, first of all, smart cities needs engagement from their citizens. It’s not just a governmental endeavor. I mean, government can provide things like security on its own, but anything else in a smart city is really about whether citizens respond to it, use it and demand connected services. In China the answer is yes to all three. That comes from this fertile atmosphere that’s grown out of mobile e-commerce. China really has the foundation of mobile infrastructure and awareness that you need for building more advanced and integrated services in a smart city.
Let’s talk about Adenergy. You’re a young company, but you’re connected to Aden Group, which has been in Asia and in integrated facility management for over twenty years. How does Adenergy fit into this family and into the larger situation in Asia?
We’re one part of the movement Aden is leading, which is about expanding the frontiers of facility management and making the environment of daily life more customized – making buildings and cities better places for the people in them. That’s a smart-city principle too, of course.
Aden Group was founded here in Asia, and when you track Aden’s history alongside China’s, you really see how they’ve evolved together.
How much has China changed recently?
We’re definitely in a new phase of China’s development. Facility management is a good illustration of this. It used to be about delivering services for a mass-labor economy. It was about having a big pool of unskilled labor that operated in a limited number of areas – cleaning, security and so on. But today, China’s business needs have become tech- and data-driven. The new needs are things like smart data tools, automation and robotics.
At Adenergy, we focus on one zone of these “New China” needs, which is green energy, smart buildings and smart data tools.
We’re offering a new kind of IoT platform, and a new way of partnering with clients and cities. Our model’s key pillars are based on the exact same principles as a smart city: big data; data-driven decision making; decentralization of decision-making and management.
What are the big trends and future directions for green energy in a smart city?
Well, there’s definitely a growing role for AI in managing energy. That’s one of the most important features we’re developing through our AEMO platform.
The biggest trend, though, is what I talked about earlier: that the old situation where you could only be an energy producer or an energy consumer is breaking down. China is seeing a general decentralization around energy and the coming of a new China that’s more and more open to individual companies managing their own energy.
In other words, distributed energy?
Exactly. And also personalized energy, tailored to each company’s use and needs. Talking about future directions for distributed energy, it may well move to the level of individual citizens within the smart city. In the future, you can even imagine people becoming micro-producers of energy. Everyone who owns a car and other equipment with batteries might be able to use or release power on demand.
That would be amazing.
Yes, we’re at a convergence point in China, where all the key factors are lining up: technology, economics, government support, individual people’s way of living. When all of these sides are pushing innovation; when there’s ongoing experimentation with new models for energy, data and how to organize a city; then, you can be sure that there are big advances on the way.
Click to read more of this Aden Futures series about the smart-city mevement in Asia,
The Smart City
Has Arrived in Asia
Founded in China and dedicated to delivering the next wave of Smart green energy in Asia, Adenergy specializes in energy optimization and Smart buildings for commercial properties, as well as distributed energy generation and storage solutions for the industrial sector.
All Adenergy solutions are managed through AEMO, our cutting-edge IoT platform. AEMO is the 2018 winner of Microsoft and Envision Digital’s award for “Best Machine Learning Energy Optimization Platform”.