Features and Analysis

China is the world’s testbed for tackling urbanization: Key takeaways from Shanghai

How should Shanghai plan for its future expansion? And how is China approaching the massive challenges of aggressive urbanization, environmental restoration and continued economic growth? These questions were the focus of the recent  Global City Forum event in Shanghai, where Peter Sany, President and CEO, TM Forum, was invited to deliver a keynote speech.

The conference was organized by the Development Research Center of Shanghai Municipal People’s Government and the World Bank, and sponsored by the Shanghai Academy and Shanghai University. At the event I had in-depth discussions with senior executives and academics, including Professor Jorgen Randers (author of the famous 2052: A global forecast for the next 40 years), Robin Hambleton, Professor of City Leadership and Professor Peter Tyler, Cambridge. A number of themes and trends emerged throughout the event.

After talking to Professor Wen of the Shanghai Academy and Jin Donghan, President of Shanghai University, I gained some additional insights. As in many other parts of the world, academia advises the local and central government on policy and implementation options in this space, and it is encouraging to see how closely Chinese academia is influencing the evolution of city development.

What makes cities smart

TM Forum’s Peter Sany delivered his keynote presentation on ‘What Makes Cities Smart’ and the topic clearly resonated, with a number of subsequent speakers referring back to it.

Zhou Hanmin, Vice-Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference for Shanghai, one of the senior Chinese speakers who organized the Shanghai World Expo 2010, quoted Peter Sany in his follow-up, saying,

“I fully agree with what Peter said …the economic model will transform from an owning economy towards a sharing economy, and this will have a significant impact on our human lifestyle. This viewpoint also matches the perspective of the Chinese government.”

Abhas K. Jha, Practice Manager, Urban Rural Social Resilience Global Practice, East Asia and Pacific, World Bank, commented,

“I agree with Peter’s perspective… In the future, there will be more and more people leaving rural areas and moving into cities. We estimate there will be 10 cities the size of New York City emerging in China. We must make cities smart.”

Here are some of my key takeaways from this conference:

  • China still needs to clarify how it should tackle urbanization: I think this will be a sort of testbed for the rest of the world. China is not only one of the world’s largest countries and leading economies, but also the country that has the highest urbanization rate. From my perspective, China would benefit from a plan that stimulates people to move to smaller cities and limits population growth in mega-cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
  • There are a number of possibilities for limiting population growth in mega-cities such as Shanghai – but political will is needed: Professor Randers has served as an advisor to Shanghai University on how Shanghai could tackle its future development, and outlined a seven-step plan for a more sustainable, liveable and workable future for Shanghai. One of the key points in this plan is to make it less attractive for people to move to Shanghai (either via taxes, living costs or by other means) and more attractive to move to cities elsewhere in China, by establishing strong commercial links between Shanghai and those cities. Making it possible for people to earn a good living elsewhere, while still allowing Shanghai to grow as an international and economic powerhouse, should be in everybody’s best interest.
  • There is a real opportunity – NOW – to design and build smart cities from the ground up: Professor Robin Hambleton made a good point in viewing urbanization as an opportunity instead of a threat. We know that the world population will grow by two billion people over the next 30 years and many of these will find their ways to cities (notably in China, India and Nigeria). We have an opportunity to design and create the city frameworks that will enable a sustainable and sharing city model.

This is exactly what the Smart City Forum intends to do – create smart city frameworks that make it possible for medium-sized cities to grow in a sustainable way for the environment, businesses and citizens.

Are you interested in our perspective on how to create a smart city? Please feel free to contact me.

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