Smart Cities — Our Experience in Taipei and East Asia

Patrick Schneider
Jun 11 · 13 min read

This report summarizes our personal experiences, insights and learnings in the studio class ‘Special Topics on Interactive Media Design’ with emphasis on the topic of smart cities. We, Johanna Komesker, Mona Ruppert, Patrick Schneider and Donatus Wolf, are four students from the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam on exchange at the National Taipei University of Technology. From mid-February until mid-June 2019 we had the chance to live and study in Taiwan and immerse ourselves in a new culture while also observing similarities and differences between Taipei and other East Asian cities. It is important to be aware that our observations are not always of an objective nature.

Smart Cities

The topic of smart cities was chosen in preparation of an upcoming field trip with the urban future master students of our home university in Potsdam. We had the chance to take part in the many interesting visits, appointments and events they had scheduled, most of them in Taipei but also in Kaohsiung, Tainan and even abroad in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. The visits included companies and NGOs like Greenpeace East Asia (which later resulted in an ongoing project), YouBike and the Taipei Smart City Project Management Office, but also the German Institute located on the 33rd floor of Taipei 101 and the Social Innovation Lab.

Enhancing everyday life with technical innovation

Audrey Tang, Taiwanese free software programmer

E-Governance

During our visit at the aforementioned Social Innovation Lab, we had the opportunity to take part in a Q&A with Audrey Tang, who is not only considered to be one of the most influential Taiwanese computer experts, but also part of the Taiwan Executive Yuan as a minister without portfolio. In her work she is focusing on digitalization of the democratic process and promoting radical transparency by the government. She is also the first transgender minister in Taiwan, which along with the recent legalization of gay marriage shows how progressive Taiwan is compared to other Asian countries. In her pursuit of total transparency of government officials, she is sharing every appointment she has in her official role in an online calendar and also provides meeting notes so everyone can at all times see whom she was meeting and what they were talking about.

She also spoke about the annual presidential hackathon, in which anyone can submit ideas to improve laws, issues of public interest or official processes. With the help of a public online voting system, the highest ranked ideas are presented to the acting president and one idea is selected and guaranteed to be implemented within one year.

The government also actively pushes innovative ideas by allowing companies up to a year of acting ‘outside the law’ to challenge laws that would usually prohibit a certain idea or product.

If it is deemed successful and beneficial to the people of Taiwan, the laws will be changed accordingly.

There are countless EasyCard designs to choose from

EasyCard

For all the services of public transport in and around Taipei, including MRT, the Bus system, YouBike and even the Maokong Gondola, all you need for payment is a so called EasyCard or 悠遊卡 (Yōuyóu kǎ) in Chinese.

You can transfer money to your card at every MRT Station or in convenience stores, which also accept it as a method of payment. That way you can conveniently use public transport without searching for loose change or worrying about the right ticket type for every single ride. You can also use it to pay for transport in other cities in Taiwan, as well as public parking or e.g. the entrance at Taipei Zoo. Different designs are available and for students, the ID issued by your university even doubles as an EasyCard. Paying with your Student ID grants you a small discount on public transportation and in the on-campus 7eleven, which is a nice bonus while also reducing the number of cards you are carrying in your wallet. Special cards are also available for groups such as senior citizens or people with disabilities, providing them with a discount on public transport.
We encountered similar systems in the cities of Seoul, Hong Kong and Tokyo. The convenience of it will be thoroughly missed by us once we are back in Germany.

It is almost impossible to go 5 minutes without spotting one of the many convenience stores

Convenience stores

In Taipei, but pretty much all over East Asia, the convenience stores come with ‘smart’ features. First and foremost the majority is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and offers a broader selection than our beloved ‘Spätis’ in Berlin. They are equipped with microwaves to quickly prepare the food you just bought right in the store. Most of them offer Wifi and a Digital Kiosk, that serves a variety of functions. We mostly used it to print out train tickets that we reserved online and then also paid for them in the store. In addition to this, you can also usually find an ATM in there and even have your packages shipped to your closest convenience store instead of your home.

Garbage

Even the process of disposing of your garbage in Taipei could be considered ‘smart‘. First and foremost, citizens are expected to meticulously separate their trash into three categories, General Garbage, Kitchen Waste, Recyclables (clean and old clothes, wastepaper, plastic). In stark contrast to the garbage systems you would see in Europe or the US, the garbage trucks do not pick up your trash from your house.

Instead they are driving on a fixed route with designated stops and the trash is brought to the three trucks dedicated to the different categories of garbage.

They are playing simple melodies like a monophonic version of Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’, so people can hear the trucks approaching and bring out their trash. Of course, there is also an app that shows the times, routes and current position of the trucks.

Getting from A to B quickly and conveniently

Commuters will queue up in designated waiting lanes

MRT

The Taipei Mass Rapid Transportation, usually just referred to as the MRT, connects most parts of the city with six different lines operating mainly between 6:00 am to 12:00 am. With rhythms between two to four minutes during rush hour, the waiting times are usually surprisingly short. One of the biggest cultural differences we experienced was that in Taipei, locals are keen to behave orderly and considerate:

Several tidy queues in marked lanes to enter the MRT and standing on the right side of the escalator while walking up or down on the left side makes life easier and more efficient for everyone.

It is common sense that you let people exit the train first before entering, even during peak-times pushing or skipping queues is almost non-existent. In addition, much respect and space are offered for the elderly, people with disabilities and pregnant women. Once you enter the MRT Station, all food, drinks, chewing gum and betel nuts ( also referred to as Areca nut) are forbidden to be consumed — it is allowed to carry those items with you though.
The MRT system is very convenient to use, even if you are new to the city, as language barriers are prevented by having a color for each line, a number for each station and within those, a number for each exit. So if you want to meet with someone, you could, for example, ask them to meet you at exit number 9 of station number 5 of the green line.

Other interesting details like the brown line operating driverless and individual melodies played for incoming trains at certain stations make using the MRT an interesting experience for foreigners. While most of the trains are driving underground, one can also experience the city if they use the aforementioned brown line or parts of the red line for instance. To encourage you to use the service as much as possible, travelers will get 20% off each additional form of public transportation they use after their initial ride. That means if you took the MRT and then switched to a bus, that bus ride will be discounted. That discount even applies to rent a YouBike to reach your final destination and cover the ‘last mile’ without relying on a car.

The popular YouBikes can be seen all over the city

YouBike

As the lovechild of the bike manufacturer Giant and the City Government of Taipei, in 2009 YouBike was born. In an effort to offer more flexibility and a cleaner alternative to the existing infrastructure, they started a pilot project in a small part of Taipei, which ultimately failed to gain enough traction. Neither the City nor Giant wanted to give up on the idea and were convinced that the project would be a success if it was actually available throughout the whole city. In addition, they simplified the long and cumbersome sign-up process.

You can now find bikes in every corner of Taipei and you can easily sign up right at the YouBike station, and of course, easily pay with your EasyCard.

The service is intended for short trips rather than for extensive bike tours, which you can tell by the pricing structure that discourages longer rental times. The project is a huge success and also helped to clean up the sidewalks of the city by removing countless overfilled bike racks that were needed for all the individual bikes. In addition to this, it also serves as an alternative to the hugely popular scooters that dominate the streets of Taipei, going as far as having dedicated lanes and waiting areas at traffic lights.

Train

For long-distance travel around Taiwan, there are two options, either Train (TRA) or for specific destinations on the west coast, you can use the High-Speed Rail, which covers a route of approximately 350 km (217 miles) with a top speed of 300 km/h (186 mph). The Taiwanese way of consideration for others while entering and exiting a train, consecutively numbered cars stopping exactly at the marked location of the platform and trains that a rarely late make traveling very convenient and efficient — especially if you are used to the German train system. However, if you cannot speak Chinese, buying tickets online, especially for the TRA, can be quite a challenging and visiting a counter at the local train station is recommended.

Main Station

As the name suggests, Taipei Main Station is one of the most important junctions of the city. On its eight different levels, it connects the Taiwan High-Speed Rail, Express train and Ordinary train with the local MRT system (four lines have a stop there) as well as the Buses.

The building complex is so big that it has five malls and 75 exits, where even locals get lost on a regular basis.

To challenge the visiting students from Germany, we asked them to find the main station lobby without the help of others.

Timelapse of students navigating through the main station

As it is also the main connection to the Taoyuan Airport, there is a special counter where travelers can drop off their luggage at any time and do not have to carry around a big suitcase during the day when the flight leaves in the evening.

Smart ways of living together

Fitness

Taipei seems to be a fairly active city where people of all ages enjoy being outside and do all sorts of activities. Mostly in the evening hours, when the air cools down, parks and outdoor areas filled with dancers, joggers, cyclists, rollerbladers, etc. Wandering around Taipei one can find several outdoor gyms that provide a range of different sports equipment. Most of the riverside has been turned into parks with large jogging and cycling lanes, as well as basketball and tennis courts.

In addition to all the outdoor areas, Taipei offers twelve public sports centers with facilities ranging from workout equipment, climbing walls, billiards and even swimming pools for a very affordable price.

Social Media

We also learned that digital communication is different in Taiwan compared to our European habits. Much to our surprise, QR Codes for instance, which in Germany seem to have vanished more and more, are very popular in Taiwan and most of the east Asian countries that we visited. Numerous businesses use them to link to their social media accounts or website in their advertising.

Often they link to a Facebook profile, which is way more common to have than a dedicated website for the business. Facebook groups are also a common way to find accommodation and to buy and sell literally anything. It is also an important tool for organizing events.
Another Service that the QR-Codes will often direct you to is Line.

Whereas in Europe WhatsApp and Facebook messenger are the most popular messaging services, in Taiwan Line is the number one communication platform.

The same applies to Japan and Thailand, while in Korea users prefer KakaoTalk and in China WeChat is the (government approved) service of choice.
However, Line is not exclusively used for texting. As mentioned before it is used by many businesses e.g. to reserve a table in a restaurant or to schedule appointments. The app also offers paid sticker packs and features like polls, (group)photo albums and you can even pay with the service in some stores. With so many functions, the interface can feel a little overwhelming to the European eye.

What does Taipei sound like?

At the very beginning of our semester, we were challenged by Prof. Wang to experience our new environment in a different way than we are used to. We were tasked to collect sounds all around the city and then visualize them in a medium of our choice. We felt like the most useful solution would be a website that displays a map with the collected sounds and their location. We came up with three categories to sort them in and later implemented a day and a night mode to split the sound by the time they were recorded. We also added photos to make it even more obvious what it is that you are currently listening to.

As the class progressed, Prof. Wang asked us if we would be willing to attend a soundscape conference and present what we have been working on. With an audience consisting of experts in the field, we, of course, wanted to prepare something more sophisticated than a simple website. Our goal was to create something more engaging than our interactive map, something that puts even more emphasis on the sounds themselves and on exploration.

Our solution was a VR soundscape experience that lets you explore places in the most immersive way that technology today can provide us: virtual reality. While you can also browse a map, just like on the website, you now get to experience the sound with the addition of 360° videos. This way it almost feels like you are actually there, with surround sound and the freedom to look anywhere you want. This is a huge improvement to the one small photo we provided on our website.

In addition to this, we also wanted to find a way to put even more emphasis on the sound itself and explore some form of gamification to make it more fun to use. This resulted in a sound matching game that asks you to match a soundscape with the correct environment. At first, all you hear is the soundscape of an unknown place and a pitch black screen. This allows the imagination to run wild, thinking of what kind of place this sound could have been recorded at. The game then presents you with different environments that you can switch back and forth until you are sure that you found the correct place.

Our VR Soundscape Prototype

A small group of our class had the chance to present what we have been working on in class at the Soundscape Conference of the International Symposium on Grids & Clouds 2019 (ISGC 2019) on April 1st, 2019. Amongst the participants was Prof. Bryan Pijanowski who held an interesting talk on his work and the data he collected all around the globe. He seemed impressed with our VR prototype and we are in talks about a potential collaboration if we develop the idea further.

What we will take home

The studio class with Prof. Ryan Wang gave us a new and in-depth perspective of Taipei but also East Asian cities in general. Through the projects we ultimately learned the process of knowledge management, where we collected data ourselves and through our website and prototype put it into context and made it easily accessible for others. The field trip and our personal travels through East Asia helped us to compare what we’ve experienced and allowed us to compare what we have learned, find similarities and differences. Another important finding was that concerning smart cities in East Asia, one not only has to take the cultural differences into account but also you have to consider the dimensions of problems and solutions.

As Europeans we are used to thinking on a much smaller scale. East Asian cities can easily contain up to ten times as many inhabitants as Berlin and population density is very much an issue.

The meetings with the different companies and organizations were incredibly insightful and allowed us to gather expert knowledge about the topics we have been experiencing from a previously very subjective point of view. As part of our class, we also had the opportunity to meet with local initiatives and experience rural areas of Taiwan, putting our findings into perspective. We hope that the gathered knowledge will be interesting for others and prove to be useful for ourselves in our future endeavors as designers.

Patrick Schneider

Written by

Design @ img.ly, Student @ FH;P

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