EU and China on what makes a city smart

31 October 2019

Europe and China are working together to build smart cities, but can they agree on what a smart city is?

Indeed, given that while Europe’s five largest cities have an average population of 4,219,139, China’s have an average of 16,541,032, before approaching the thorny issue of what it means to be smart, we may need some clarity around what it means to be a city.

Just what is a city?

The Chinese word ‘市‘, ‘shì’, translates only loosely into English as ‘city’ and is often employed to describe what might more accurately be termed, on the one hand, megacity, province, county and on the other hand, district, sub-district or town. Many European cities also enjoy less administrative autonomy than their Chinese counterparts. Leeds, with its population of 789,194 is sister city to China’s Hangzhou, with a population of 9,806,000, but despite this difference the two local governments have been pursuing fruitful cooperation in the fields of business, education and culture for 30 years.

Keeping in mind this difference in what it means to be a local administration in China, it may come as no surprise that adding the word ‘smart’ brings up even more trouble. There is hardly what could be called consensus around the term ‘smart city’ among different cities and communities within Europe, but the gulf between European and Chinese conceptions is wider still.

Mega-project frenzy

The different approaches can be broadly understood as the technological versus the social. When Europe began to speak of smart cities, it was scanners, sensors, cameras, drones and even maglev trains that dominated the discourse, and the public imagination. However, people began to worry that the fervour for the next cutting-edge mayoral mega-project might eclipse attention to the very people that these projects were intended to serve: the residents of the city.

The vanquishing of economically disadvantaged communities to build shiny modern business districts bereft of cultural hustle and bustle across Europe in the 70s and 80s, many of which boast plazas and skyscrapers still virtually vacant to this day, raised people’s alarm bells. Thus the principle emerged: the smart city is only smart in so far as it improves the wellbeing of the people in it.

Shift in focus

A city not designed with people in mind, said this new perspective, is no city at all. Technology should be a means, and never an end in itself. This thought evolved further to say, if wellbeing is the ultimate end, there may be more efficient ways to achieve it than through investments in technology. The smart city should have smart governance, cultural, ecological, and economic policies that put people first. And if it is to successfully meet the needs of its people, those people need to be included in its design. Such is the rhetorical shift, by no means universal and by no means complete, that has taken place in Europe.

Smart or eco?

In China, however, a parallel shift has moved along a slightly different trajectory. Given the extremely different social and political context, this should come as no surprise. Our project TRANS-URBAN-EU-CHINA seeks to share experience in urban social integration between the EU and China to assist this smooth transition. But to achieve this, it is first necessary to gain clarity on core terms in urban development, namely the smart city and the eco city.

In the Chinese case, there is a more definite division between the ‘smart city’ and the ‘eco-city’ than there is in EU cities, where sustainability is now widely held to be integral to any smart city vision. An eco-city is one with socio-economic, environmental, coordinated and sustainable development, with the emphasis on social justice, economic efficiency, and human-nature harmony. It strives to achieve effective and efficient resource use, and an emphasis on urban-rural integration.

A smart city, conversely, is an urban area equipped sensors for data collection to create more efficient urban assets and better resource management. At the core there is a smart platform that connects all the smart infrastructure, from gas and water supply to parking meters, so that city officials can monitor and improve services. The use of real-time data facilitates urban management and communication between government, management officials, community and city infrastructure.

As in Europe, the fervour for progress sometimes outstripped the real needs of the citizens whom this progress was intended to serve, and corrective measures are now in place to right this imbalance. However, in this context the solution was to integrate the smart city and the eco-city approach with a nod to long standing Chinese ideals of achieving harmony between people and nature, progress and stability.

Why join forces?

Though there is some overlap between the European and Chinese ideas of what makes a city smart, one might think that the breadth of the differences would inevitably hamper attempts at cooperation. However, it is only so long as these differences are not understood that they stand in the way of a collaborative approach. Our project TRANS-URBAN-EU-CHINA, designed to engage and facilitate exchange between European and Chinese cities, therefore began with this analysis.

China can learn from Europe

What we have taken away from our project so far, which sees collaboration between European cities, academic and research institutions, and networks, is that the two regions nonetheless have much to gain from working with each other. Insights into bottom-up planning mechanisms and holistic and cross-departmental ways of working may help China to close the ‘planning-implementation gap’, that is, the distance between the initial plans for smart cities and the cities that end up being built.

Urban platforms being trialled in Europe, such as the Smart Energy Management System and Urban Sharing Platform in the EU-funded Sharing Cities project, may assist Chinese cities in developing their own urban platforms, and in working together with citizens to ensure that these can be used effectively.

On top of this, the European concept of Living Labs, multi-stakeholder communities fostered in order to encourage bottom up and collaborative innovation, are now being trialled in Chinese cities as part of our TRANS-URBAN-EU-CHINA project. These may help Chinese cities to harvest some of the economic, social and technological gains that European cities have seen through facilitating the innovation that might otherwise lie dormant among local communities and organisations.

…and Europe from China

But the assistance does not just travel in one direction. Chinese cities also have a lot of insight for their European counterparts. Technology remains an important part of the European smart city, and in this department Chinese cities are leagues ahead. From integrated city-wide sustainable mobility systems, including smart parking and public transport networks, to information communication technology, including smart sensors and data management, Chinese cities have expressed a will to turn their upper hand into a helping hand.

As an enormous and rapidly growing economy, China can also offer economic advantages to the European cities which it collaborates with, from local investments to whole new industries. Making a name in China can also produce a major boost to local tourism in European cities, and to Chinese students coming to study in your city, which is also a great advantage in terms of on-the-ground cultural exchange.

Leeds leads by example

The very act of collaboration can have further advantages. By sharing their practices, cities on both sides of the world have a chance to see their own achievements and difficulties through the eyes of another, an opportunity for reflection that is a great boon to progress.

In Leeds, whose long-running connection to Hangzhou has already been mentioned, the advantages are obvious. The cities have worked together on common issues such improving air and water quality; on integrated public transport, where Hangzhou already had a lot to teach Leeds; and on child obesity and child mental health, where Leeds was a step ahead of Hangzhou. This relationship has led to economic development, with two large Chinese companies opening offices in Leeds and creating a lot of new jobs.

Leeds admits that collaboration can be complicated, but insists that, as our TRANS-URBAN-EU-CHINA project is demonstrating, it is ultimately advantageous. To survive in the global economy, cities too must be global, and, yes, Leeds says, that include posting on WeChat and Weibo every day!

This is the first in a series of five articles on European collaboration with China. Insights were gathered by EUROCITIES from the TRANS-URBAN-EU-CHINA project, in particular from Dr Chang Liu of the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design and Dr Bernhard Müller from the Dresden University of Technology, and from our session on working with China at the EUROCITIES2018 annual conference. For a more technical and in-depth treatment of the issue, please see TRANS-URBAN-EU-CHINA deliverable D2.1.

The project TRANS-URBAN-EU-CHINA, i.e. “Transition towards urban sustainability through socially integrative cities in the EU and in China” has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 770141. The material presented here reflects only the author’s views. The European Union is not liable for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.


Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer