Hogeschool van Amsterdam

Centre for Applied Research on Economics & Management

1st UN World Cities Day in Shanghai

Shanghai booms towards a Global City in 2050

4 nov 2014 11:42 | CAREM

Shanghai is a bustling and dynamic city: construction sites everywhere, tall buildings, new flashy skyscrapers in the financial district towering above them all. The city has been growing at breakneck speed for an uninterrupted period of at least 20 years. Everybody wants to be there, so it seems. A good reason to invite Urban City Development expert Willem van Winden as keynote speaker for the conference "Shanghai 2050: Rising Global City."

Population in Shanghai increased from 10 to 19 million in the last decade only, and the end is not in sight. In 2006, the city had two metro lines. Eight years later, there are 16. Real estate prices go through the roof, costs of living in downtown Shanghai are rapidly approaching New York City levels. Growth is not confined to the city: the wider region has grown at a similar pace, urban sprawl is enormous. And thanks to the high-speed rail system, large cities like Hangzhou and Suzhou lie now within one hour reach. Shanghai has become the centre in the biggest urban network on the planet. The most frequently used word by foreigners to describe all this: “Unbelievable".

Rising global city

What will Shanghai be like in another couple of decades? The Shanghai leadership realises the dangers and risks of uncontrolled growth, and therefore started a strategy-building process.  Professor Willem van Winden was invited by the Shanghai Normal University, Dr Rachel Feng and Prof.  Gao Jun, to contribute to their conference “Shanghai 2050: Rising Global City”. They had organised it as a part of the first UN Global Cities Day celebration, one day later, and had invited a number of foreign experts like Peter Kressl, Leo van den Berg, Ben Derudder, Stefan Kratzke.  In his talk, Willem van Winden focussed on  what it takes for Shanghai to reach the next level become a leading city of science & innovation: how to better connect people, companies and universities, and turn the city into a dynamic platform for open innovation.


As a follow-up of the Expo in 2010, the Chinese government decided to seek support at the UN (Habitat) to organise an annual “world cities day”, to pay attention to one of the key global challenges (not only in China): how to manage urban growth and development in a balanced way and without destroying our planet. Willem van Winden attended the very first edition of this “world cities day”, 31th October 2014, at the premises of the World Expo. Contentwise, the morning session did not bring much anew. In their short speeches, all the high level speakers (including the Vice Secretary General of the UN) started their speech with the rather common observation that “more than 50% of the world population now lives in cities”. All of them made the also well-known analysis that cities are sources of prosperity, growth and innovation, but also face challenges like environmental degradation, slum formation, poverty etc. etc. Having said that, the session conveyed an important message: Urban development is now on the top of the global agenda, and it is here to stay.

Shanghai 2050

In the afternoon, a session was given on Shanghai’s 2050 plans. In an eloquent presentation, Bert Hofman, Woldbank Country Director for China, put Shanghai’s development in a historic and global perspective. Shanghai is the most prominent commercial centre of the orient, the beating heart of Asia's regaining dominance in global trade flows. Incomes have risen rapidly, but it will take very long before China will be at par with the world’s richest nations in terms of income per capita and productivity. An ageing population (due to the 1 child policy) will put Shanghai’s urban growth to a halt in a few decades time. His message: On the longer run, Shanghai’s growth will not come from adding more people, but from increasing productivity. This requires better education, the deployment of technology, and organisational/managerial innovations throughout the economy.

The second speaker was Mr. Ho, the head of the Shanghai planning department, who took the initiative to start the 2050 planning process. He started with the observation that urban planning in Shanghai has always been about facilitating economic growth: more factories, more offices, more jobs, higher income, more consumption. Now, its time for a more comprehensive approach: the environment and social aspects must enter the equation. He formulated a number of questions:

 - How can the city grow more prosperous without having excessive income differences between social groups?; How to maintain "social harmony” Uncontrolled urbanisation will have disastrous results.

 -  What will be Shanghai’s role as “Global City” in 2050 in the eyes of Chinese people and foreigners?

-  What kind of economic structure (industry, services, R&D/innovation) will the city have, and what will the development path look like?

 -  What role will Shanghai play in national and global supply chains and production networks?

 -  Can Shanghai become a "leading city”, an example for other cites all over the world as model for the transformation of human society?

 - What will be Shanghai’s role as bridge between east and west, how to combine cultural merging with Chinese identity?

 - How can Shanghai help to put an end to ecological degradation and climate change?

 - How can Shanghai be a mayor hub in the digital economy, with its emerging new business models?

 - What is the role of Shanghai as leader of the polycentric city network in the Yangtse Delta, with about 80m inhabitants as we speak?

The challenges are related. For Bo, the million dollar question is how Shanghai and its urbanised hinterland region can become a "quality economic system”. It is clear that endemic pollution and congestion will slow the influx of highly educated talent (Foreign and Chinese) needed to become an innovative knowledge economy; But the city and region cannot close the polluting factories overnight: it must offer sufficient number of jobs. And also, more social equality and balance are needed keep the city stable.