In a monthly interview series, the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative turns the spotlights on one of their PhD candidates. We learn more about their research projects, their link with inclusive prosperity and their long term goals. This edition features Jialong Zhu who studies the governance and implementation of smart cities in China, in order to make urban development in China more inclusive and sustainable.
What is your research about?
While globalization drives urban development, there are increasingly significant problems associated with this, mainly the growing social exclusion, the rising levels of inequality, and urban pollution. Marginalized groups may be more susceptible to the impacts of environmental pollution, resource shortages, and climate change. In this context, more inclusive cities are needed. Eco-cities, smart cities, and low carbon cities are introduced as new urban development models to mitigate and address these urban problems. Among these models, smart cities have become a key focus in China nowadays. Smart city initiatives can expand access to urban services, stimulate economic growth, and improve public engagement. However, the flawed design and implementation of these initiatives, coupled with the digital divide between different groups, might increase divisiveness and inequality.
Therefore, my research will critically examine the governance and implementation of smart cities in China, outline policy recommendations for making urban development in China more inclusive and sustainable.
How are you progressing so far and what are your main findings?
I am currently examining China's smart city construction status, including development pathways and characteristics of China's smart cities and how local governments respond to the national policy of building smart cities. In addition, I am exploring the concept of smart and inclusive cities through a systematic literature review and trying to identify tensions between smart city measures and urban inclusiveness.
One of my main findings so far is that the building priorities of different smart cities are closely related to the geographic locations of cities and their goals in the short term. For example, Guiyang, a city in western China with cheap electricity, clean air, and low-frequency natural disasters, focuses on constructing a national-level big data and cloud computing center. While the eastern city of Hangzhou, which will host the 2022 Asian Games, focuses on smart transportation and smart security systems to provide tourists and participants with a more convenient and safer experience. Another finding is that there is a tension between the application of cutting-edge technology in cities and urban inclusion. For example, the relationship between machine learning, facial recognition system, and urban residents' privacy issues is worth exploring.
"We need an inclusive city where the needs and self-worth of all urban residents, including marginalized groups, can be equally satisfied, and realized."
In what way is your research project contributing to inclusive prosperity?
The latest technology has been profoundly affecting the urban futures. However, no matter what the latest technology is applied in the city, citizens are always the core of the city. Technology is not a solution to the challenges facing cities nowadays but a tool to help solve these challenges. The key point is how to use this tool. Marginalized groups are not only more likely to suffer from environmental pollution and resource shortages but are also likely to become more marginalized in the context of the continuous application of new technology in cities. Therefore, identifying the tensions between smart city initiatives and urban inclusion will contribute to considering potential social impacts when applying new technology in cities. In addition, developing a more inclusive smart city framework will help all urban groups benefit from urban growth brought about by the new generation of information and communication technology.
What is the added value in doing your PhD at the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative?
Being part of the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative PhD group gives me many opportunities to learn about research topics other than urban studies, including business management, law, philosophy, etc. This will not only expand my academic perspective but also greatly improve my interdisciplinary thinking. Absorbing perspectives and suggestions from multiple disciplines will bring more interdisciplinary and fresh content to my research.
What are your ambitions for the future?
I hope my research would be able to contribute to the inclusive urban development. We need an inclusive city where the needs and self-worth of all urban residents, including marginalized groups, can be equally satisfied, and realized. An inclusive city where all urban residents can benefit from modern urban services and growing prosperity.