Detecting Trajectories of Smart City Development in China

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Detecting Trajectories of Smart City Development in China

Detecting Trajectories of Smart City Development in China

Principal investigator: Dr HU Wanyang (Department of Public and International Affairs)

Detecting Trajectories of Smart City Development in China“Smart city (SMC)” is the new buzzword, signposting the sustainable goal that many nations have been working towards. Technology often stands at the crux of SMC. Meanwhile, some theorists propose a trend from a technology-centric approach to a more human-centric one in policymaking. Is it how the SMC concept plays out in reality?

Contextualising the theories of SMC development, Dr HU Wanyang, Assistant Professor of CityU’s Department of Public and International Affairs, and her research team studied the SMC policies in China. They conducted a text analysis of policy documents from 341 Chinese prefectural cities published between 2009 and 2020. It was to detect the factors behind human-centricity in policymaking. However, the findings turned out different from what the theorists predicted.

Billed as part of significant initiatives in China’s quinquennial plans, SMC development has gone off the ground with the central government’s top-down efforts. The study showed that Chinese cities strongly focus on ICT infrastructure development. The technology-centric approach has flourished in the nation since 2009 as the public investment in such has been rather massive. For example, smart devices, advanced surveillance systems, and big data processing techniques pervade the state.

In that case, the team identified three possible reasons behind the prevalence of the technology-centric approach. First, smart technologies can better address the structural problems and urban maladies derived from the rapid socioeconomic development in Chinese cities. Moreover, China sticks to the top-down policy-driven mode even for SMC development. Robust policy support has created a seedbed to facilitate the usage of smart technologies. On the other hand, this checks citizens’ active participation in planning SMC development strategies, and most often so, they can only be subject to the directions the government or corporates propelled. The absence of citizenship may result in the extensive adoption of the technology-centric approach.

The degree of economic development and population density vary among the Chinese cities covered in the study, demonstrating that economically more developed cities are more active in SMC policymaking. These cities usually enjoy higher fiscal capacity for investment in SMC development. They may either tackle urban management issues with new technology or enhance the prestige to enter the global discourse of SMC development.

Although human-centricity is predicted to be increasingly important in theories of SMC development, the cases in China seem to go against this notion. It was shown that economically developed cities are more technology-centric and invest more in ICT infrastructure to improve quality of life and urban management. By the same token, denser cities tend to be more technology-centric in their SMC development, for they demand smart technologies to handle maladies out of density.

There are different phases of SMC development, yet Chinese cities at the early and advanced stages also tend to invest more in technology. At the initial stage, cities solely emphasise building fundamental ICT infrastructure instead of bringing human elements to the table. At the most advanced SMC development stage, cities slightly prioritise technology but tend to see human capital more equally. They claim to enhance human capital and quality of life by promoting technological applications and public-private partnerships.

Overall, the study forms an initial ground for further empirical exploration of SMC theories, which in turn reveals how SMC development varies from one city to another. As suggested in the findings, attending to the development of human capital in SMC policies is necessary in the context of China.

Achievement and publication

Hu, W., Wang, S., & Zhai, W. (2023).Human-centric vs. technology-centric approaches in a top-down smart city development regime: Evidence from 341 Chinese cities. Cities, 137, 104271.