The Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba became an International Olympic Committee sponsor in January and is using its first Olympic Winter Games to paint the picture of how cloud technology may make the Games easier on host cities in the future.
At its showcase building in the Gangneung Olympic Park, the company takes Olympics fans on a journey through how technology could change the landscape of the Games, from easing traffic congestion, to anticipating movement of the crowds to helping spectators plan their entire Olympic experience through one portal that would help with housing, sightseeing and even interaction with athletes.
Alibaba has been described as the Amazon of China, and while it does indeed serve as an e-commerce giant there for Chinese consumers, its IOC sponsorship moves beyond being the exclusive “e-commerce platform services” category and into the company’s other ventures in technology. In that capacity, the partnership also makes Alibaba the official “cloud services” provider of the Games, an area where the company says it can have an impact on future host cities. (The company also signed on as a founding partner of the Olympic Channel as part of the deal.)
“The IOC really does need to modernize itself and digitize itself for the future, for the fan of the future, the athlete of the future, the host city of the future,” said Jennifer Kuperman, Alibaba’s head of international corporate affairs. “So to do that you need to leverage technology. The showcase itself is to give people a glimpse of what could that technology look like.”
At the showcase, Alibaba has a screen showing how the company’s headquarters city of Hangzhou, China, integrates its cloud technology to help time traffic lights better, thus speeding up transportation, including for ambulances and medical personnel. Alibaba also has partnered with IOC sponsor Intel to show how venue managers can potentially use cloud technology to track where attendees are within arenas and where they may be headed to offer them better services.
Visitors were also given a look into what an integrated experience might look like at upcoming Games, where the cloud technology could help create a one-stop itinerary for fans to access tourist sites, restaurants and hotels. “All of this lives on your smart pass, which becomes your mobile concierge when you’re at the Games,” Kuperman said. “It’s where your tickets will live, it’s where your registration will live and it gets smarter and smarter because it collects all your data of what you’re doing when you’re at the Games.” Using GPS technology, the tool would also help you get to the venues where you need to go.
Alibaba used the Pyeongchang Games mostly to highlight the technology that currently exists and imagine possibilities for the future. Kuperman said the company hopes to integrate as much of its actual cloud services as possible in Tokyo for the 2020 Olympic Summer Games to help local organizers there. But the real coming-out party is expected in 2022, when Beijing hosts the Winter Games on Alibaba’s home turf. The company intends to be an integral part in the planning behind the scenes. “One, it gives us enough time to do it right and do it well in partnership with the IOC,” Kuperman said. “And secondly, it’s our home country. We know how to do things there and that will make it even easier.”
The company’s goal is eventually to have a suite of services available to future Olympic host cities following Beijing and through 2028, when Los Angeles hosts the Summer Games and when Alibaba’s current IOC partnership ends. How, exactly, it would integrate the technology with, say, Los Angeles municipal services like traffic control and security remains to be seen. Kuperman acknowledged that many of those details would have to be addressed in part through the IOC, which is the official partner with any given host city.
“Alibaba is providing the infrastructure and along with the IOC, we’d be providing models and tools for the host cities to work with,” she said. “The IOC has to help us use and create those partnerships with future host cities between now and L.A.”
Ultimately, the hope is to have a model in place that can move from event to event. “The idea,” she said, “is that the host city wouldn’t have to reinvent this each time.”