China’s urban megaclusters: Beyond cities

China’s largest smart city clusters boast populations comparable to those of nations like Japan, Germany, and Great Britain. Their integration is a crucial part of China’s success.

The Pearl River Delta, or PRD, is the largest urban conglomeration on the planet. About 60 million people call the Delta their home. While the PRD forms a large, urban organism, it is not one unified city. Its constituent parts, cities like Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, clearly have personalities of their own. Most of all, the Delta with its sheer size goes far beyond established notions of what constitutes a city. In fact, the PRD is a whole cluster of cities that have grown into one another.

City clusters harness economic superpower

City clusters are central to China’s success. In addition to the PRD, which has a population roughly equal to that of Great Britain, there is the Yangtze River Delta, the area around Shanghai. While it is far less integrated than the PRD, its overall urban population, at about 80 million, compares to even larger countries like Germany. There is also the Beijing-Tianjin Corridor, less cohesive than the two deltas, but bigger still; it has 120 million urban inhabitants, approximately equivalent to the entire population of Japan.


These three city clusters have the heft to form an economic superpower in their own right. In fact, they do so already, because their contribution to China’s success is vastly overproportional. Most of China’s tech-intensive industries, such as information and communications technology (ICT), the automobile industry, and finance, are focused in these three clusters.


With so much skill, investment, and manpower concentrated in these urban areas, it becomes obvious that China’s city clusters bring about a set of unique opportunities. If they continue to be a success, so will China as a whole.

A hub of expertise to realize a city cluster’s full potential

The challenge is to integrate these gigantic urban areas in a smart way. But what constitutes a smart city cluster? And why is it smart to think in clusters rather than in cities? “Due to historic reasons, the prerequisites of productivity are not evenly distributed geographically in China’s cities,” says Ivan Shang of the Siemens Cities Center of Competence (CoC) Asia.


“For instance, there are many institutes of higher learning and research in Shanghai, but far less in the nearby cities; however, the cost of labor in Shanghai is constantly increasing, which prevents the city from developing certain low-skill labor sectors.”


This means that creating a good balance at the level of the individual city is no longer possible – the challenge has to be addressed on a higher level. The purpose of the Siemens CoC Asia is to build a hub of expertise and a point of contact for urban planners to do just this. The goal is to help a city cluster mobilize its full potential – and to achieve a critical mass.


That is certainly the case in China’s three largest city clusters. While they are spearheading the country’s development, they are also beneficial for the country as a whole. “What we see here is a kind of overflow effect,” says Shang: Smart city clusters are drawing increasingly larger portions of their hinterland into their orbits. 

Shorter commutes and better connectivity create “same city” feeling

Integration is the keyword, and there are many aspects to making the cities grow into one another. The most obvious one is traffic, travel from Beijing to Tianjin being a case in point. The train ride used to take several hours. Now, it’s down to 35 minutes – the duration of an average subway ride within Beijing.


Communication is getting easier, too, with long-distance fees being scrapped for all intercity cell phone calls. From the standpoint of the citizens, this blurs the division between the cities. “What this does,” says Ivan Shang, “is that it creates a ‘same city’ feeling.”


The government expects to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to improve and extend this model even further over the entire cluster, including Beijing, Tianjin, and eleven other cities in the corridor with its 120 million people.


The goal is to create a “commuting circle” covering the entire area, in which the journey between any two given points should take no more than one hour. This will make travel in the entire Beijing-Tianjin city cluster virtually indistinguishable from subway rides within one city.

The Pearl River Delta: a Silicon Valley for hardware

Another aspect of the case for smart city clusters is the division of labor within the clusters, for instance with regards to smart manufacturing and the integration of automation and data exchange, also known as “Industry 4.0.”


Siemens is well placed to help take this approach to the next level. With its competence with regards to Industry 4.0, the Internet of Things, and the digital factory, it can bring about gains in productivity by increasing communication between the virtual and the physical side of production. This is essential for further improving the division of labor within smart city clusters.


Shenzhen in the PRD, for instance, has long ceased to be a manufacturing hub. It has become a center for ICT and other knowledge-intensive industries. Meanwhile, physical manufacturing takes place next door in the Delta, in Dongguan. This proximity of brain and brawn within one smart city cluster is a unique advantage. This is so pronounced that the PRD has increasingly established itself as the global hub for start-ups that make tangible products – the Silicon Valley for hardware.

The answer: intelligent building management and renewable energy 

In the past 30 years, the number of people living in Chinese cities has increased by 500 million. This is the largest urbanization in world history. But as China’s smart city clusters have grown to the size of countries such as Japan, Germany, or Great Britain, further increasing both their productivity and their sustainability is an exceptionally complex task.


Yet, there is in fact an answer. It includes intelligent building management systems and the use of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydropower; other crucial components include efficient water treatment facilities and extensive public transport systems. It is precisely the integration of such solutions that distinguishes Siemens’ approach to urban and city cluster planning – with regard to ecological as well as economic sustainability.


This kind of holistic approach is exactly what is required to meet the challenges of China’s urbanization, says Yang Xiaoguang, Director at the Intelligent Transportation Systems Research Center of Tongji University in Shanghai. “What we really need are integrated solutions,” says Yang. “Siemens has a big role to play.”


Over the past 40 years, China’s urbanization – the largest in world history – has been a remarkable success. With the right approach, China can continue to answer the challenges and benefit from the opportunities that this entails.


Author: Justus Krüger, freelance journalist based in Hong Kong.

Picture credits: NASA, Valerio Pellegrini, Getty Images

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