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Lessons from China's mega-cities
Wim Elfrink is the first Chief Globalization Officer at tech giant Cisco. (He also holds the title of Executive Vice President, Industry Solutions.) Elfrink heads Cisco’s Emerging Countries initiatives as well as its globalization strategy. A member of the board of the New Cities Foundation and of the Chongqing Mayor’s International Economic Advisory Group, among many other organizations, Elfrink often presents his team’s research on how urban environments can be improved by focused information and communications technology (ICT) strategies. We spoke with Elfrink about cities in China, via Cisco’s telepresence unit, with Elfrink in Bangalore and frog visiting Cisco’s New York offices.
What can the rest of the world learn from China’s newest cities?
In China, there is an economic need for new cities. The nation is building urban environments to accommodate 1 million or more people. China, as we all know, offers examples of sometimes building in just the right way (think of the buildings of the Beijing Olympics era: the Bird’s Nest by Herzog and de Meuron; Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building), versus total failed concepts. But the latter are also concepts that are tested more and more. In some ways, urban planners might get more knowledgeable about what works and what doesn’t work from these concepts. And China is proving that it will continue to become more and more competitive. That includes new, promising sustainability concepts.
What is the advantage of building cities from scratch?
There is an economic advantage in building from scratch. You can think about more efficient ways to use energy or conserve water, or what your ICT strategy might be to help these and other goals. I think that building a brand new city gives urban planners and architects the opportunity to really fantasize, to build a services catalogue, what can be monetized. Needs to be part of the ICT master plan. But it’s not about the technology, but about what it enables.
As new Chinese cities are created or China’s Tier 2 and Tier 3 grow, they have the enormous possibility to innovate economically, socially, environmentally. There’s the chance to see if new technologies will add something to these equations.
Would you say that China is reinventing itself through its newest architecture and its newest cities?
In a way, generally speaking, China is an ancient civilization that is getting younger. Much like India. And both old and new cities have to continually reinvent themselves because of competition. Sometimes, it’s not an entire city, but a corporate campus that becomes in a way a city of the future. They can be living labs. We learned this when we built our Cisco campus in Bangalore. These types of mini-cities get young people excited to go to work.
Also, I think it’s important to look at examples of Chinese cities such as Chongqing. The Economist named named Chongqing as one of the 13 emerging megacities, or megalopolises in China to watch. It has a population of more than 30 million. These types of urban areas are entire ecosystems in themselves. We can learn a lot in terms of how companies are addressing big, unmet needs for public services in Chongqing, for safety and security, and then of course for all kinds of marketplace services, on an urban scale never really seen before.
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