Jan. 15, 2019

What China is getting right .

What China Is Getting RightBy Chelsea Collier, SMART CITIES

China has the highest urbanization growth rate in the world and is pursuing an aggressive development strategy. As Western communities create their own plans to modernize, digitize and urbanize, it seems logical to examine the practices of a dominant global leader.  With a population of 1.4 billion, 56% of which live in cities, China cannot afford to get it wrong. And this is perhaps a key motivator for their increasingly massive investment in urban innovation.  Simply put, smart cities can deliver new approaches to remedy mistakes of the past.

China is second in the world in terms of poor air quality, and in fact ‘most of its areas exceed the safe PM 2.5 level.’ Also more than 75% of Chinese are in ‘sub-health’ condition with cardiovascular disease and tumors as leading causes of death. Commute times in most cities are more than 30 minutes and there is great inefficiency with regards to waste disposal and communications capacity.

In the West, our perspective on China is colored by a historical past, their recent role as supplier of cheap manufactured goods and suspicion related to differences in legal rights and intellectual property. This is only exacerbated in recent months given trade disputes and the consequences on global business.

Repositioning China as a leader and a teacher isn’t always embraced by the West. It seems everyone has an opinion on whether to categorize their activity as positive or negative. But if we can suspend our judgement and instead examine their perspectives, we can perhaps glean new insights many of which are very relevant to the challenges faced by U.S. cities – sustainability and mobility to name a few.

Of the 1,000 smart city projects worldwide, approximately half of those are in China. This level of volume and investment holds some relevant lessons for city and industry leaders. It may be tempting for American city leaders to dismiss China’s activity since the funding and implementation strategies are so different.

China’s top down, centralized, government-led approach can seem quite foreign when compared to the U.S.’s hyper local, decentralized system that is often resource-strapped. But stopping at the model level amputates the opportunity to explore different approaches and apply some insights and best practices.