Serious business

Ready to run: Kunming’s tech scene

Already a popular tourist destination, Kunming is now becoming a technological hub with an artificial intelligence-focused business zone. Words by JAKE NEWBY, illustrations by RYAN CHAN

Renowned for its laid-back vibe and seemingly perpetual good weather, Yunnan province in China’s southwest has long been an attractive destination for both tourists and those looking to relocate from busier parts of the country. In the capital Kunming, a relaxed atmosphere still pervades, despite a recent ramping up of construction and worsening traffic jams.

The diggers and diversions are partial signifiers of the change that is coming to the city. Under the government’s ambitious plans Kunming is set to become a gateway to a far wider region. Construction has already begun on a rail link to Vientiane in Laos, and China hopes it will one day stretch all the way to Singapore. Costing an estimated RMB 34 billion and due to open in the mid-2020s, the railway is part of the wide-ranging One Belt One Road programme.

It’s not just physical infrastructure; the local authorities are also intent on turning Kunming into a model for smart-city development in China and have signed a number of strategic cooperation agreements with telecoms and internet providers to work towards this aim. Last year the government committed RMB 3 million per year on smart-city development until 2021.

In addition to the huge Kunming High-Tech Industrial Development Zone, business areas focused on cutting-edge technologies are also appearing in and around the city. Last year, for instance, the 20,000-square-metre Growing AI Industry Park opened in Wuhua district as Yunnan’s first artificial intelligence-focused business zone.

Even the city’s more traditional sectors are getting swept up in the possibilities of tech. Kunming and the rest of the province have long had a focus on agriculture – the city is home to China’s biggest flower market – and in 2016 city authorities announced the construction of 40 ‘modern agricultural internet of things application bases’ before 2020, enabling high-tech systems for monitoring and predicting crop growth. If the government has its way, Kunming’s technology sector is very much set to bloom.

people-Innovation-Asia-Liu Bo

The People:
Liu Bo

The Big thinker

The Chinese character wei, which means ‘micro’, has become a common internet prefix in China, largely thanks to micro-blogging platform Weibo and all-conquering messaging app WeChat (weixin in Chinese). Kunming startup OThink uses a Chinese name that means micro-think – appropriate for the organisation’s broad sweep of projects to date.

In addition to video mapping projects and a Kunming-based smart technology display centre, the company has launched Tango, an educational AR (augmented reality) app that enhances children’s books by animating characters on the pages, and 720yun, which combines images from over 150,000 photographers for what it claims is the country’s largest ‘VR panoramic platform’.

Founder Liu Bo admits that the company’s focus was quite broad in the past. ‘We’ve always wanted to understand and try new technologies and new ways of thinking,’ he says. ‘Going forward, we don’t want to completely change what we’ve been doing but we want to focus more specifically on certain areas, including AR, and panoramic and drone photography.’

Liu is hopeful that this work will feed into Kunming’s smart-city goals, but concedes that there can be difficulties involved when working in new technologies in a ‘lower-tier city’. ‘There isn’t a huge number of really innovative companies in Kunming at present, and we often meet customers who don’t necessarily understand our vision,’ he says. ‘But that’s true of any company working in a new field – you have to be prepared for these challenges. It’s up to us to educate, even if this can be hard work at times.’

And despite the challenges, Liu only sees greater opportunity on the horizon for Kunming. ‘With the One Belt One Road programme and the construction of the high-speed rail links, the communication between here and Southeast Asia is only going to strengthen,’ he says. ‘As a result, Kunming’s economy will improve, and with it its initiative and dynamism.’

Innovation-Asia-Cruzr Robot

The Product: Cruzr Robot

Humanoid and ready to serve

UBTECH is one of a number of companies betting big on a rise of the robots in China. The stated mission for the company, founded and headquartered in Shenzhen but with a major facility in Kunming, is ‘to bring a robot into every home’. Slightly terrifyingly, this includes the production of an officially licensed Star Wars First Order Stormtrooper robot, app-enabled and complete with facial recognition, AR and voice-command capabilities.

The company’s other robots have more benign appearances: Lynx, Alpha, Jimu and the Kunming-made Cruzr. Produced in Kunming’s dedicated high-tech park Cloud Village, Cruzr is a 1.2-metre-tall humanoid service robot. Intended for use in commercial and home settings, Cruzr offers everything from video conferencing and big data analysis to facial recognition, handshakes and – perhaps most bizarrely – dancing and hugging, courtesy of its flexible arms and 360-degree movement.

The first Cruzrs rolled off the production line in Kunming in October 2017. At a launch event, manufacturing engineering director Bai Mengmeng stated that ‘Cruzr is capable of meeting the various needs of queuing, hospitality and cashier services in banks, hotels, supermarkets and so on’. The first batch numbered 200 units, but UBTECH, which has signed a cooperation agreement with the municipal government to help turn Kunming into a smart city – says it expects to be making 30,000 of the robots each year.

Such figures mean the company still has a way to go before it’s putting a robot in every home, but Cruzrs are already in operation in airports, shops and museums around China. Let’s just hope they don’t join the dark side.

What to watch

Petal power

Billed as ‘the Alibaba of the flower industry’, HuaEB is a Kunming-founded app that connects flower sellers directly with suppliers. The app streamlines the sales process, saving shops money while ensuring greater profit for farmers.

Keep up appearances

DM Global Products Exchange, a WeChat-based platform for buying cosmetics from outside China, has quickly established itself as a market leader and is expanding operations to offer products from Europe and the US, in addition to South Korea and Japan.

Sharing is caring

China’s leading shared office provider, URWork, may be headquartered in Beijing, but it’s Kunming where it’s currently building a new ‘innovation centre’, its largest facility to date, with 30,000 square metres of space.

Cathay Dragon flies to Kunming from Hong Kong seven times a week


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