China's Innovative Traffic Lights: How China Is Already "Light" Years Ahead of the West

An article in the IHT last week raised China's billion-dollar, billion-ton-of-CO2 question: how will a country known for its inimitable capacity for imitation manage to switch to an economy based on innovation and invention?

Note that the question is not "Will," but "How." China's not only arguably better poised than any country to leapfrog the developed world, with loads of cash and a government bent on innovation, but its environmental situation is so dire that it simply must skip over the conventional solutions and rely on new approaches.

To find out the answer, design writer Alice Rawsthorn travels to Tianjin (the port city recently linked to its neighbor Beijing by the fastest train in the world). There she sees the light. The traffic light, to be exact.

It's "a new type consisting of a rectangular strip of energy-efficient light-emitting diodes (or LEDs) that switches between the three colors." But this light, first introduced in 2000, is just the tip of the iceberg.Rawsthorn lingers on the light: "The strip is fully illuminated at the start of each signal, then shrinks in size to show how much time is left before the color changes. It shrinks down toward the bottom of the panel on green, and up toward the top on red. This helps color-blind motorists ... and as drivers can guess how long each signal will last, they're less likely to accelerate or brake at the wrong moment."

The light may be putting some dent in China's automotive accidents, which are slowing despite the steady rise in cars. But this technology's hardly new -- it's almost ten years old.

Rawsthorn--another foreign journalist parachuting into one of the world's most bedeviling countries, likely at some unnecessary carbon cost--has come all the way from London to conclude:

Progress has been slower in the third and most important field - China's frenziedly constructed infrastructure of transport and utility systems. There are some splashes of innovation, like Tianjin's smart new traffic lights, but why is the automotive industry still clogging the roads with old-fashioned gas-guzzlers rather than fuel-efficient cars and trucks? And why are so many new housing projects, schools and hospitals dependent on unsustainable energy sources, when they could so easily have been designed and built differently? If ever there was a case for "leapfrogging" design convention, it's in China.

She's right. And also not right at all. To wit:

"Fuel-efficient cars and trucks"
The automotive industry is exploring new avenues of sustainability, like hybrid and electric vehicles, encouraged by an increasingly resource-conscious government. Companies like BYD, which probably make a few of the batteries in your pocket right now, are diving headfirst into cars. As we've noted before, the world's first plug-in hybrid could very well be Chinese.

Don't forget that China's new cars are already more fuel efficient than those of the United States. While you're chewing on that, remember that at 20 billion gallons a year, California uses more automotive fuel than all of China.

China's may even have California beat on its parking lot technology, which use nano-materials to "eat" pollution.

And trains!
Sorry, U.S., but China's railway system is also far superior to yours. On the innovation front, it's about to bring some brand new hybrid locomotives online (albeit made in Pennsylvania). As I mentioned above, the new Beijing-Tianjin line, with a top speed of 350 km/hr, is the fastest in the world. And the new subways are leaping ahead of the U.S. too.

"Designed and built differently"
Rawsthorn notes that "so many new housing projects, schools and hospitals dependent on unsustainable energy sources, when they could so easily have been designed and built differently." Not. So. Fast. In the building sector, change is happening slowly in China, but probably faster and bigger than anywhere else. (Consider its designs on large eco cities, or the grandest LEED-certified neighborhoods.) If it seems too slow, that's because building green is actually not "so easy" anywhere. And while the need and capability for building green is considerable, it's even harder in China, where quality materials can sometimes be in short supply, education is minimal and consumer demand for sustainable buildings is low.

What isn't low is China's desire to save money, from the top down. That helps explain why (though Rawsthorn again misses this) China relies so heavily on compact florescent bulbs and uses more solar hot water heaters than any country on Earth.

Thanks again to the profit motive -- not just saving money but making it through manufacturing -- solar energy is a booming industry in China, which is also home to one of the world's most successful and famous photovoltaic companies, Suntech.

It makes us wonder if China will get most of our green collar jobs before we do.

Wind power is growing fast too, thanks to China's massive capacity for building turbines, its hunger for energy, and its spacious grasslands and plateaus.

Policy innovations
Sure, it doesn't sound as sexy as a horizontal LED traffic light. But some of China's newest laws offer out-there and potentially hard-hitting approaches to its environmental problems. Recognizing local governments' determination to raise GDP at any cost, in recent years, the Ministry of Environmental Protection has smartly turned environmental protection into an economic issue. Innovative notions like Green GDP, pollution insurance and "green credit," which targets bank loans of polluting companies, may have struggled to take off, but have already sent waves through policy channels.

Then there are widespread campaigns like those against plastic bags, which seem to be having a positive impact, even if such law aren't powerfully enforced.

Limiting Factors
Which brings us to China's limitations. To be fair, China is still far behind when it comes to cutting-edge, creative design. Among other things, the country is severely handicapped by -- and here Rawsthorn goes to the bad boy artist every journalist loves to quote, Ai Weiwei -- state-run corporations, which are too conservative, and a stale state-run, Confucian-based education system that doesn't put a high premium on critical thinking. Rawsthorn mentions 1,000 new design schools in a decade, but most of those are little more than design sweatshops, a high-level Chinese designer told me. That so many students want to study design and architecture -- and that the central government is pouring more resources into creative industries -- may have less to do with creativity and more to do with the sheer amount of work to be done and the cash to be made.

But the big elephant in the room is intellectual property, or lack of it. Until China can protect the ideas of its enterprising scientists and designers, innovation will be lacking. A stronger legal system is an absolute must for China if it wants to improve on a range of levels and give its many intelligent laws some bite. What forward-thinker wants to work hard at a new idea if they know that idea could easily be stolen?

A related culprit: limited technology transfer from developed countries. That's often because foreign corporations are wary of handing over inventions to a country that copies just about everything, given weak IP laws.

But the government and research institutes are trying to change that image through sweeping programs that promote creative industries and ramp up domestic research capacity, in search of "indigenous innovation" (zizhu chuangxin).

If China could turn some of the energy it expends on making knock-offs every year into energy spent on trying to innovate, and then scale up (as it does best), other countries would need to start learning how to copy from China.

Actually, there's no reason they shouldn't start right now.

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