We could grow old together

Global tensions between the world powers, especially the US and China, have been on the up, but at local level, European and Chinese cities are taking a very different course. “It all started in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing,” remembers Markus Pließnig, Essen’s head of communications and international affairs, “the then mayors of Essen and Changzhou met there and started the Sino-German Innovation Park. That was in 2013, and we followed it up in 2015 with a further agreement in the presence of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and President Juncker.”

All eyes at the highest echelons were on this city cooperation, which was supposed to capture the new cooperative stance that Europe and China were to take at a grand scale. That sounds like a lot of pressure, but Essen and Changzhou have really pulled it off.

Industry for people

The Innovation Park, located in South Jiangsu, has a research and development zone, an industrial zone, education zone, modern business zone and eco-friendly residential zone. “At base, this is about people,” Markus says, “for example, a big activity in the research and demonstration zone is ‘talent cultivation,’ that is, getting people the skills they need to be on the cutting edge. The ‘industrial zone’ is about helping industries conserve energy and protect the environment, so that people can be healthier and happier as the economy grows.”

By putting a residential zone in the mix, the Innovation Park is looking to show that cultural and ecological development can and should happen in parallel, “we want to set an example for urbanisation development worldwide,” Markus says.

Chinese companies want the opportunity to go global, and European companies want to understand how to enter the Chinese market.

“The Innovation Park works well,” according to Markus, “because Chinese companies want the opportunity to go global, and European companies want to understand how to enter the Chinese market.” In the Park, joint Chinese and German organisations are collaborating in every area, learning how best to work together. Weekly video conferences between representatives from Essen and Changzhou are one of the secrets to having kept this collaboration going smoothly for so long.


An example of Chinese and European companies working together was soon to be delivered: The Innovation Park was the site where the company Nanfang Bearing, registered in Essen, and two Chinese companies, Jiangsu EELLE Environmental and Kunshan Maymuse Environmental Technology discovered each other and began to collaborate. Their chosen topic? Wastewater.

Together with visiting experts from Essen’s University of Duisburg, the companies looked at how wastewater was being treated in local Changzhou plants and began to work on new solutions to deal with it in a more effective and efficient way. “Part of the draw of the innovation park,” says Markus, “aside from its international expertise, is the collaboration that business and academia can get up to together.”

This is just one example of several companies from Essen that have begun deep collaboration with Chinese companies, and activities facilitated by the park, for example the Germany-China Economic Forum and the Environmental Investment Fair, have allowed nearly 80 German companies to open up dialogue with Chinese counterparts.

Talent cultivation

For business to thrive, and to be attracted to your region, Markus emphasises, the key is to have a strong labour force. It is the people that make the difference. That is why Essen’s University of Applied Sciences for Economics and Management is collaborating with Changzhou University to deliver a joint MBA programme where students can learn about effective management in a global world. On top of this, 400 people are entering vocational training and training as vocational teachers at the Innovation Park as “People who have been empowered with practical skills, not just companies, are the backbone of any thriving economy.”

As well as talented makers and managers, the cities want their collaboration to be a boon to the creatives whose job it will be to define what the future looks like. That is why the Jiangnan Colani Design Institute in Changzhou is taking the lead on a project which sees a number of innovative design companies coming from Germany to Changzhou to deliver training for local designers. The scope of this project ranges from new medical devices and industrial processes to architecture and urban design. Meanwhile, Essen’s KZA architects is sponsoring designers from Changzhou who want to come and work as interns at its offices.

Urban sustainability

While urban sustainability is a feature of all their collaborative enterprises, the cities are also involved in projects where that is the explicit theme. Students from Changzhou and Essen are partnering in a ‘Sino-German cross-disciplinary studio’ to innovate in the area of sustainable urban design, and planning experts from Changzhou are visiting Essen for inspiration that they can put into practice locally.

Elderly care

These are just a couple of examples among many more ways in which the cities of Essen and Changzhou are working together on political, academic, business, and citizen level to encourage mutual thriving. But a final point that any account of this collaborative enterprise would be remiss to exclude is the work that the two cities are doing together on care for the elderly.

Both cities are experiencing an aging population, endemic to their countries as a whole, though for different reasons. In China, the one child policy has led to a major demographic shift where large numbers of people at retirement age are not sufficiently balanced out by younger people of working age. In Germany, and indeed most of Europe, the last few decades have seen a similar shift.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Both countries take their duty of care to the elderly very seriously, and now Essen and Changzhou are entering a major collaborative enterprise involving nursing homes, geriatric hospitals, and training centres. A Sino-German Geriatric Conference, the third iteration of which was held again in Essen this year, brings together experts from both regions to learn from each other’s insights.

At this year’s conference insights ranged from how symbols that differ in Germany and China affect the construction of dementia-sensitive architecture to the challenges involved in diagnosing and researching Alzheimer’s disease.

Traditional medicine

Through a programme called ‘TCM guest doctor,’ experts in traditional Chinese medicine are traveling from Changzhou to Kliniken Essen-Mitte to share knowledge about herbal treatment and to carry out scientific research and deliver clinical instruction in Germany of one year.

As yet, the collaboration between these two cities is relatively young, compared to some Chinese-European city pairings that are 30 years old or more. However, the depth and breadth of this collaboration, which just saw both cities walk away with the URBAN-EU-CHINA Powerhouse Award for EU/China city partnerships, guarantees strong links that will endure well into old age. If your city is or would like to be engaged in cooperation with China, our TRANS-URBAN-EU-CHINA project is a good place to make a start.