NEWS FROM THE FRONT DESK ISSUE NO 412The federal government is waking up to the threats posed by China in our region and on Thursday allocated a few billion dollars to Pacific countries to supposedly make us all feel safe and secure.

It should be looking at what China is doing with cities and urban planning. That’s another wake up call Australia’s Federal government needs to have. And while it’s there it should take a look at the role technology is playing in that game plan, including artificial intelligence and data mapping.

According to people observing the Middle Kingdom at close hand and from safer distances there’s good reason to be more than a little alarmed on several fronts.

First, there was the ABC’s QandA, where occasionally, you get little nuggets of wisdom falling like confetti. Monday night was one of those times.

Just a taster: “All technology is good, at first.”

Then it goes feral. Call it unintended consequences or intended consequences in the wrong hands.

The mix of futurists, technology experts and sexologists on the show pondered what is no longer the distant future but a future that’s like some unstable dude next door playing with a DIY atomic bomb, procured via 3D printer, powered by an organic self replicating substance called artificial intelligence.

They talked about sex robots, then China.

“It is terrifying to see what’s happening in China,” said the tech expert revealing that the China could now scan a billion faces in a single second using a system called Skynet.

See this report for more details.

But as frightening as that scenario is – imagine it in the hands of Peter Dutton, for instance – what’s more interesting to think about is the level of technological sophistication this entails and what happens if you apply it to your urban planning.

Because that’s what China is doing, fully aware that cities are the powerhouses of the economy and that if you get the spatial planning right you can do very well indeed.

By comparison, Australia is still colouring in maps, with great childlike concentration, as if zoning still means something. Then ignoring the lot when a pollie decides to cave into the next pressure point.

Mick Daley’s latest instalment in our transport series notes that if a politician announces infrastructure you know you are in trouble because it should have been a thoroughly boring, orderly, non politicised announcement, rolled out by knowledgeable bureaucrats who are not in fear of losing their jobs.

According to Adrian McGregor of multi disciplinary design studio McGregor Coxall, whose growing company set up an office in China two years ago to design the City of Shenzhen, Australia needs to snap awake.

“China is interesting because a lot of the world’s best firms are all vying for work there so it’s very competitive on a global stage, but what’s striking is the speed and pace of urbanisation and the way it’s matched in the pace of infrastructure delivery we just can’t do.

“They’ve got fast rail and metros and all their infrastructure going in first.

“They’re thinking about their cities from central government.

“The Australian government is not interested in cities policy. It’s not even considered in their remit. There’s a cities unit… [he thinks].

“So they delegate responsibilities to the states and that in itself is very short sighted. China looks at regions such as the Pearl River Delta and stitches multiple cities together with fast rail.

“They think about how these cities can complement each other to create powerful economic regions and that’s something we don’t do.”

The infrastructure allows cities to be connected so that they can share resources and move people around.

“Some cities retain production and manufacturing roles but try to go more high tech, so knowledge workers might be housed in an adjacent city that has a better environment or nicer lifestyle, but the people can move quickly back and forth.”

“They’re throwing a huge amount of money at rail,” McGregor says.

“They basically want to transition their economy from production and manufacturing into a higher order services and technology economy and they’re throwing billions into that transition.

“And what they’ve identified is the role of cities in this.”

China is also focused on AI. There is also a global race on in pursuit of AI in America, McGregor notes, but the Chinese are going after it double time.

When you look at this, “Australia is asleep at the wheel” on data and urban planning, McGregor says.

“We’re a service economy now, moving out of primary production and cities are the engines of our economies and we’re not investing in them.”

And we’re very backward, he says. Not in our skills and innovation, there is plenty of that – but in the way our systems work.

“We’ve got to look a the educational institutions and then the industry around that and your workforce and think about trying to strategically cluster and attract business.”

China integrates its high tech companies into universities, like MIT in the US, so that software companies are on campus and education and business is very tightly mixed, McGregor says.

Our clever people are not getting supported and our educators are exporting their expertise, some of it the best available.

Around 80 per cent of design and architecture students are from overseas, the majority Chinese, McGregor points out.

So while Australia often teaches excellence in design for the built environment, students take the learnings off shore, or as we heard from University of Melbourne professor Dr Dominique Hes this week, are often ignored when they reach local practices.

Christian Criado-Perez from University of New South Wales told an event in Brisbane held by The Fifth Estate early this year that his extensive research of professionals in the built environment are steadfastly risk averse. This means they cling to proven methods in past performance even in the face of evidence that innovation will yield better results.

Not so China.

Yes it’s got an advantage.

As McGregor says: “You can see if you take democracy out of the equation and have long term leadership where someone is in power for 30 years and the big decisions are from central government across the entire country you can deliver things very, very quickly, and that’s what’s happening in China.”

But these leaps forward are also underway elsewhere in other political frameworks.

“China is definitely leading, but [innovation] is also spreading into India and other parts of south east Asia,” he says.

So what do the Chinese think about Australia in general?

“We’re seen as an oasis and a safe place to park cash and eventually retire. You make the big money in China and then leave there to live a golden life here.”

Now, why didn’t we think of that?

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  1. Since this discussion, the Victorian elections have just shown how seriously people are taking their climate demands and what they are doing about it.

    Not too far away the Federals will have a similar judgement placed upon them. That is how democracy works, don’t despair

  2. Michael, my comments to Tina were based on findings from our Biocity Studio urban research centre and my recent personal involvement in leading design for a new Shenzhen satellite city to house 3 million people. I believe Australia has a lot to learn from urbanisation in China and its vision for creating vibrant cities.

  3. Government’s in the first world nation of China have woken up to the futility of road building. They are listening to their engineers and mathematicians who have warned them that roads can’t ever deliver effective transport. Cars use too much space.

    Big Chinese cities Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzen are adding 30 kilometres of new Metro rail each year. If Sydney were building the same amount of Metro rail per capita we would be adding 8 kilometres per year.

    No Australian politician has ever explained where oil supplies are going to be secured, next week, next month, next year or in 10 years, the policy is do nothing and hope for the best. They will be punished when the inevitable oil shutoff happens. The residents of Warringah will deeply regret their anit Metro stance when they are all walking.

  4. Guangdong, of which Shenzhen is but a small part, is not China. Sun Yatsen learnt this a long time ago when his fragile 1st presidency fell quickly to the northern warlord Yuan Shikai (whose foreign adviser was an Australian). I’m unsure that a representative of an Oz company that’s been there for merely 2 years can make sweeping pronouncements like those in this article. I suggest that readers look to Anna Rowe’s (Curtin Business School) research on Shanghai managers’ opinions on the central government’s environmental laws to gain a more insightful understanding of ‘taking democracy out of the equation’.

    1. Thanks for your contribution Michael, always good to hear from a China expert. And quite right, our News from the front desk is not balanced report, as per the rest of this publication (at least we aspire to that) but more impressions, hopes and sometimes fears – a mood of the week piece. I’m sure our readers will love to hear more from you and other experts on how China is handling its environmental challenges. And of course Australia’s not looking very democratic right now with our pollies ignoring the clear will of the people for climate action and renewables.