The Olympic games are always a hugely popular sporting event, however this year’s winter games are also proving controversial. The political tension between China and Western nations such as the US, UK & Australia combined with the backdrop of the pandemic & Beijing’s zero covid policy outside of the Olympic closed loop has diverted attention from China’s achievements with the games. It is the perfect opportunity for the country to show themselves as a modern high-tech nation with an advanced level of digitalisation. In fact the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics should be the safest and greenest games ever according to the government’s plans with the goal being to be carbon neutral.

China is describing this as the “Science and Technology Winter Olympics” (科技冬奥) & there are robots pretty much everywhere!

Start as you mean to go on

The official kickoff took place in China’s National Stadium (better known as the Bird’s Nest) which was built for the Summer Games in 2008. As in 2008 the event was choreographed by noted filmmaker Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) and included an extravagant spectacular laser and light show demonstrating the digitalisation that China is becoming famous for. Despite the diplomatic boycott by nations such as the US, UK, Australia & India the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics opening ceremony was attended by more than 30 leaders of other countries.

The ceremony was designed to underscore the fact that Beijing is the only city to have hosted both a summer and winter Olympics, full of light and symbolism. I loved the computer generated virtual reality snow & ice…

Whilst the tech involved looks really spectacular, perhaps the greatest contribution the opening ceremony made to the aim of a carbon neutral games, is that the Bird’s Nest is one of 5 venues which have been repurposed from 2008. This has saved huge amounts of energy, time and costs compared to most cities who have hosted games and who have had to construct everything from scratch.

My personal favourite is the Water Cube National Aquatic Centre, which has now been rechristened to “the Ice Cube” 😂. Well, obviously…

2022 Beijing Winter Olympics mascot
Bing Dwen Dwen, the mascot of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics is of course a panda. What else for China?

Health Tracking (it’s definitely in focus right now)

With the background of the ongoing pandemic, the Olympic athletes (along with all the trainers, journalists and the Chinese who are required to make the games possible) are in a closed loop system, cut off from all contact with the general Chinese population. This is a real pity as it doesn’t give those attending the event from abroad the opportunity to experience China, however the government is adhering to their zero covid policy for the country (& zero spread from the Olympic closed loop). In order to keep human contacts and infection risk to a minimum, you can find a robot for pretty much everything at these games, but especially in health monitoring of athletes & other visitors!

  • There are robots to measure the temperature of visitors and to register them into events and locations.
  • Venues & hotels have disinfectant robots cleaning the floors, all surfaces and the air.
  • There are smiley face robots roaming around the Olympic park who will approach anyone who is not wearing a mask correctly and remind them to do so.

The athletes also have “smart beds” which monitor breathing and heart rate, sending vital statistics to their coaches and sounding the alarm should anyone show unusual symptoms. Several North American athletes took to social media to praise the beds which have been designed for comfort (unlike those at the Tokyo summer games – & in many provincial Chinese hotels 🙊)

@summerbritcher Reply to @angellin471 #fyp #Olympian #Olympics #olympicbed #sport #athlete ♬ original sound – Summer

Robo-Restaurant!

Besides regular delivery robots that can carry loads around the Olympic village of up to 300kg, there are sophisticated robots also working in the gastronomy outlets. Basically all the processes involved in getting the food to the table have been covered.

So for example there are catering robots who can flip burgers or stir fry veg, as well as complex robotic systems for bringing the food to the table:

There’s even a robot bar tender who can handle glasses and shake cocktails:

Green energy

The power used at the games is coming from wind & solar energy produced in Zhangbei, to the north of Beijing in Hubei. All of the venues are powered by renewable energy which is a huge undertaking for an event of this size with additional infrastructure.

Vehicles

In Zhangjiakou, where the skiing is taking place there are 80 hydrogen cell vehicles and 700 hydrogen cell buses in operation. In fact 85% of the vehicles involved in transporting athletes & visitors within the closed loops are energy saving electric vehicles.

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Cool! The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics could be a watershed for the accelerated implementation of hydrogen energy i… https://t.co/CbUo71p2wS

This isn’t something totally new for China as for example Shenzhen has moved the entirety of its’ bus fleet and most taxis to electric vehicles, significantly reducing emissions in the city.

Natural CO2

Can you imagine how much refrigerant is needed to cool the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics? No? Me neither, but I do know that it’s a first to be using natural CO2 from recycled resources to make ice at the games for 4 of the venues (the repurposed existing older venues still have the older technology).

The Olympic Games are first and foremost a sporting event, but with their global visibility, they also provide an important platform to showcase sustainable solutions

Marie Sallois, IOC Director for Sustainability

The use of the natural CO2 technology is replacing hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), traditionally used to cool ice rinks and proved to damage the earth’s ozone layer and contribute to global warming. HFCs have a warming impact that is up to four-thousand times more potent than CO2. 

5G Connectivity everywhere

Whilst on Austria’s main east-west rail connection I can’t even be sure of having a phone signal on the whole stretch (even outside of the tunnels), China has managed to install 5G across all Olympic venues, including the 45 minute high speed rail link from Beijing to Zhangjiakou – yes, even in the tunnels.

Opening of the Great Firewall

For anyone who doesn’t know, the Great Firewall is the name given to China’s blocking of any apps which are found to not comply with the local laws. That includes Google, Facebook, Instagram & Whatsapp. Before anyone gets their tights in a twizzle about this, just consider that the EU is considering the legality of what some of those apps are doing too, it’s not just Chinese heavy handed censorship. However for the duration of the Beijing 2022 winter olympics all visitors are being allowed to use the apps that are usually blocked.

8k Ultra-high definition streaming

The 5G coverage allows high-definition streaming of film footage of the games – there’s a special carriage for this in the train too.

Alibaba’s Cloud ME

Alibaba Cloud launched their Cloud ME application allowing participants who are at different locations to make live broadcasts together by virtue of life sized 3D projections. In this way, the Alibaba Chairman Daniel Zhang was able to meet with IOC Chairman Thomas Bach although only one of them was within the closed loop of the Olympic bubble.

Innovation

Prior to the event, Beijing organised a competition calling for innovative ideas in the field of sustainability and green-digitalisation. The ideas which have been implemented (such as innovations in wind tunnels or weather forecasting) are perhaps not so obvious to those of us watching from afar, however they have also contributed to the 2022 olympic games’ digital focus.

Digital Yuan

For the first time, the Beijing government has rolled out the digital yuan to foreigners within the limited confines of Olympic Games. Within the closed loop, visitors are therefore able to pay with cash, a visa card or with the digital yuan.

Interestingly, although Alibaba is a main sponsor of the games, Alipay hasn’t been allowed as a payment method within the bubble. (Nor has WeChat pay). I’m assuming that Beijing is using this opportunity to showcase their official solution & trial its potential overseas as it’s proving quite difficult to compete with the plethora of digital wallets already in use across the country, whereas hardly any foreigners will have Alipay or WeChat pay installed.

Digital yuan payments can be made via app (probably also with China’s regular facial recognition technology), via a physical card or by purchasing swipeable wristbands that function as e-wallets.

Mini APPs & a Virtual Influencer

The Chinese government is using the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics as an opportunity to place a spotlight on wintersports as healthy outdoor activities. (Of course this will provide various opportunities for foreign brands in the medium term). During the games there are a number of mini APPs available within WeChat educating about winter sports and their associated health benefits.

Alibaba has used this time to launch their virtual influencer Dong Dong (the name means winter) who is also edutainment about winter sports and the Olympic Games.

The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics are the greenest & most technological yet

As you can see from what I’ve detailed above, there’s a lot of really cool tech enabling this event.

  • robots for many use cases
  • green energy
  • 5G everywhere
  • digital payments
  • virtual reality

Beijing is determined that the games will be carbon neutral so that means that they will also be planting 1.2 million trees to offset the emissions from the building activities.

There has been a certain amount of criticism of China for the amount of water needed to run the snow cannons. The games are taking place in one of China’s drier areas so the environmental impact of pulling water out of the system for snow production is certainly not ideal. However looking at the other green measures taken it’s certainly going to be balanced out (& has been accounted for in the carbon neutral projections of the government).

If you weigh artificial snow usage (which you would also have anywhere in Europe, although not to the same extent) against:

  • renewable energy
  • hydrogen cell & E-vehicles
  • recycled venues
  • natural CO2 refrigerants

Then you can see that the balance of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics has got to be considerably better than previous winter games. Nobody would have wished for pandemic games, but China is an experienced organiser of huge scale events and in this case there are very few other countries who would have been able to handle the situation so well. Sustainability is not a word that the anglophone world often uses with China but as in many other cases in the past, the West has to learn not to underestimate the Middle Kingdom. For sure, there are many aspects of this sustainability that have to be improved still further, but it’s certainly a step in a necessary direction.

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14 Comments

  1. […] Sustainability is still not completely mainstream in China but is certainly growing, driven by the government plans (see also my article about the Winter Olympics). […]

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