Shanghai: A City of Two Tales

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I’m writing this en route home from Shanghai, where I’ve spent most of the past week touring, visiting, meeting, and experiencing this Asian megacity for the first time. The occasion was Expo 2010, the world’s fair situated on both sides of the Huangpu River, which runs through the center of China’s largest city.

I came to Shanghai primarily for the opening of an art installation, "The Nature of Cities," on cities and biodiversity, at the Expo’s United Nations pavilion. The theme of the exhibition — created and produced by Art Works for Change, the nonprofit group founded and headed by my wife, Randy Rosenberg — reflected the theme of the Expo itself: "Better City — Better Life."

That "better cities" theme pervaded the pavilions representing nearly 200 countries, plus dozens more organizations and corporations that are exhibiting here. And it aimed to signify Shanghai’s emerging status in the 21st century as the "next great world city" — at least by Shanghai’s own reckoning. Shanghai, like most big cities in both developed and developing economies, is a study in contrasts: on the one hand, world-class shopping, fine dining, and some of the planet’s most impressive buildings; on the other, choking pollution, gridlocked traffic, and a struggling underclass. A rich and tortured history; a promising but uncertain future.

For two days, amid some of the hottest temperatures Shanghai had seen in 50 years, we toured the Expo, at times standing in long lines. The story each national pavilion told was predictable: "We’re a proud people with deep traditions and care for the land that is our home. We support progress and a clean environment. We have great hope for our children. Here are a few of the things we’re good at. Come visit us! Come buy our stuff!"

But not the USA pavilion, which stood out among the others, less for its design than its content: Its primary purpose was to showcase the companies that sponsored the building, a roll call of American capitalism: Alcoa, Boeing, Caterpillar, Chevron, Citi, Corning, Dell, Dow, Dupont, Fedex, GE, Goodyear, Honeywell, Intel, KFC, Marriott, Microsoft, Pepsi, Pfizer, Pizza Hut, Procter & Gamble, Visa, Walmart, and more than a dozen others.

The message, as best I heard it: "We innovate to bring great ideas to the world! We build brands that the world wants! We create opportunity! Come visit us! Come buy our stuff!"

But it wasn’t the country pavilions that most interested me. On my second day at the Expo, I made a beeline for the corporate pavilions, a smaller group of grandiose buildings across the river from the Expo’s main crowds. It was here I found two competing tales of our energy and transportation future.

Up first: the General Motors Pavilion — actually the SAIC-GM Pavilion, reflecting GM’s partnership with the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation. The pavilion’s theme: "Drive to 2030," an engaging and highly optimistic tale of where transportation can take us within the next two decades, with an emphasis on China’s vehicular future. That future, says GM, is one

in which driving will be free from emissions, accidents, petroleum, and congestion. It is a future in which driving will also be more enjoyable and fashionable than ever before.

The keys to this Utopian vision are electrification and connectivity — a technological mash-up of vehicles, energy, and information, where vehicles — from traditional cars, buses, and trucks to a new generation of cool "personal urban mobility" vehicles called the EN-V (pronounced "envy") — zip along at a decent clip, kept collision-free thanks to next-gen technologies GM is developing or integrating into vehicles — or at least plans to. Oh, and the sky is always blue.

I found the vision compelling and hopeful: a car maker that gets that the future is not just about cars and trucks, or even buses and trains — but about mobility: getting where you need to go, when you need to do it, in the least taxing (personally, economically, societally, environmentally) way possible. And maybe even tap into some cool, fashionable technology along the way.

(I’ll admit to a little bias: GM is a client of GreenOrder, the strategy and management consultancy with which I am affiliated. But I would have been equally laudatory of any car company that promoted such a sustainable mobility vision. GM, as it turns out, was the only car company hosting a pavilion in Shanghai.)

You might respond, "Great. Nice vision. But when will we actually see it?" After all, we’ve been tantalized before at world’s fairs with cool tech that never came to pass. (Picturephones, anyone?) And GM’s track record for delivering on change isn’t that great.

"This has become very strategic to GM," David Tulauskas, GM’s head of public policy in China, told me over lunch at the pavilion. He cited the growing number of places like London and Singapore that are using congestion pricing; additional cities are creating "back office" traffic management technology platforms to manage vehicle congestion. He described the emergence of Dedicated Short Range Communications standards that can keep adjacent vehicles from colliding in order to utilize roadways more efficiently ("kind of like schools of fish that never run into each other," he explains). He explained how the expansion of GM’s OnStar telematics technology could provide a range of consumer-friendly services. Tulauskas also pointed out that the "new" GM has taken a more aggressive stance on innovation, such as the venture fund it recently launched to develop and invest in advanced technologies, and a more robust long-range planning process being undertaken by GM that is approaching business development from a mobility perspective, and looking more frequently outside the company for technology solutions, a far cry from the inward-looking pre-bankruptcy GM.

Of course, it’s all just talk and cool prototypes. But I walked away with the sense that this old-line company has a bead on where the future is headed, and wants to be in the driver’s seat, so to speak, as that future comes into view.

That was not the case at the second corporate pavilion I visited, the Oil Pavilion, presented by three of China’s largest petroleum companies, though it might as well have been sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute.

There was a decidedly old-world vision offered here — a propaganda machine spewing bromides about the wonders of petroleum in our world and how much we rely on it daily. Fortune-cookie-like reminders were everywhere you looked: "Convenient traffic conditions/70% are contributed by oil," read one. "One needs 551 kg of oil for food in lifetime," read another. (I’m guessing they weren’t referring to this line of petrochemicals.)

The heart of the Oil Pavilion was an impressive 4-D movie (the fourth dimension is sensation: you "experience" snakes, flies, wind, ocean spray, and more). But its central message was decidedly one-dimensional: Oil is a critical part of everything we do, and it isn’t going away, so learn to love it. Even when there is mention of the need for a "low-carbon economy," it quickly and curiously follows that "oil and gas will remain predominantly." Unlike GM’s forward-looking message, this industry’s viewed tomorrow as a carbon-copy of today — stay the course! — hardly a hopeful vision. Suffice to say that amid the petro-carnage in the Gulf of Mexico, not to mention the Persian Gulf, the core message of the Oil Pavilion seemed to have run out of gas.

And so went the Expo’s two tales. Both anticipate a growing global population of urban dwellers seeking the good life, a life that demands mobility, not to mention food and shelter and fun. Both anticipate the challenges ahead of making cities that work, ensuring they aren’t paralyzed by polluted air and congested roads, but which offer ways to get where people want to go.

But only one of those is a city I hope to see. The other is a city to dread.

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