By John Niehaus
During our Smart Cities discussion, I was reminded of a series of conversations that came up during my IXP trip to China a few weeks ago. With around 18-20 million Chinese migrating from the countryside to the cities each year, urbanization is a key focus for the Communist Party. During our class discussion on Smart Cities, we debated the point of just how applicable PlanIT Valley is to urbanization in the real world. Sure, perhaps PlanIT Valley can succeed as a city of just a few thousand people, but are its results replicable on a larger scale?
If China chose to, it could build Smart Cities of millions of people because the Communist Party has a great deal of influence over where new housing developments are built and, more broadly, where new cities are built. One concept which was mentioned in several of our meeting was the concept of “Satellite Cities” which the Communist Party has been encouraging. The concept is to build a series of smaller cities about an hour or so outside of the major Chinese cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Guangzhou, etc) rather than deciding to build a city in the middle of the countryside. Presumably, this will allow the government to leverage much of the existing infrastructure (water, electricity, highways, trains, etc) and give people the opportunity to work for companies in both their satellite city or in the major city itself.
While much of the West criticizes the sometimes authoritarian rule of the Communist Party in China, this example, to me, illustrates one of the great strengths of the Community Party, which is its ability to think long-term about the best interests of the country and implement public policy with minimal oversight from the general public.
In fact, one of the Americans that we met with in China, who has been in China for the last 20 years, said America itself could use some more “Central Planning” sometimes. However, the American public is greatly averse to the thought of “Central Planning” in the post-Cold War era. As part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” in an effort to combat unemployment and boost the economy, Roosevelt created a series of federal agencies, including the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933 (still in existence today) to provide flood control and electricity generation in Tennessee and its neighboring states. This was arguably the height of Central Planning in the US, with much of the power grid and national highway system being laid in the next couple of decades.
Today, high profile events like the levees in New Orleans breaking during Hurricane Katrina, the flooding of downtown Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy, and the lack of a true high speed train in the US point to a lack of infrastructure investment over the last few decades. Clearly, there are other national budgetary restrictions at work here (Medicare, Social Security, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc), but I think it does raise the question of whether a democracy like the US can take the long-term view to invest in infrastructure and new cities (or hopefully Smart Cities) when it is necessary.