Zhengzhou: China's living laboratory for urbanization

A new MIT program in the planned Chinese city offers opportunities for observation and collaboration.

Zhengdong New District is a planned mixed-use new city in the northeast quadrant of Zhengzhou Municipality, the capital of China’s Henan Province. Construction started in 2001 for what is one of many planned urban communities seeded across China to help accommodate that country’s unprecedented rate of urbanization.

Today, the 150-square-kilometer Zhengdong New District is thriving, home to 320 financial institutions, 29 universities, a broad array of information and service industries, a high-speed rail station, and, most significantly, 1.5 million inhabitants. It is also, as of this month, the site of one of MIT’s ambitious and imaginative international projects: the Zhengzhou City Living Lab program.

“This is a unique opportunity for the School of Architecture and Planning, and for MIT,” says Siqi Zheng, an associate professor at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and the Center for Real Estate (CRE), and faculty director of the MIT China Future City Lab (MIT-CFC). CFC Lab is the first MIT-backed research and entrepreneurship lab that brings academia, entrepreneurs, government, and industries together on urban challenges in China.

“Unlike chemists or engineers, urban policy makers, planners, and developers can’t perform experiments in a physical laboratory,” says Zheng. “To apply our theories, policies, and technologies in China, we need to be there on the ground. We were looking for a city with an entrepreneurial spirit, one that is willing to work with us, to test out our new ideas. We’ve found that in Zhengzhou.”

“China is very important for MIT’s global strategy, and we want to strengthen our research ties there,” said Richard Lester, MIT associate provost for international activities. “The Zhengzhou City Living Lab program provides a wonderful opportunity for the faculty’s research and innovation activities to impact the city’s future sustainable development.” 

The lab was officially launched on Nov. 12 at the MIT China New City Forum, a satellite event of the MIT China Summit. As a key element of MIT-CFC, this living lab program is a collaboration between MIT and the municipal government of Zhengzhou.

“China’s urbanization has been extremely rapid,” says Zheng, noting the vast differences between one city and the next, with problems of pollution, energy, housing, and congestion.

“We couldn’t observe those issues at such a large scale in the West. China’s top-down governance also enables us to test our ideas, technologies, and policy designs there in real-time — whether in new city formation, the real estate market, urban transportation, energy and environment, or the innovation-driven entrepreneurial ecosystem,” says Zheng, whose local knowledge helped cement the arrangement between the municipality and MIT.

Hashim Sarkis, dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning says the agreement “is a testimony to Siqi’s clarity of mission and boldness of vision, and to the rigor and speculative thinking that CFC brings to the future of Chinese urbanization.”

Zhengzhou’s leaders are equally enthusiastic about the new venture with MIT.

“We are fortunate to have MIT join us to establish this Living Lab,” says Peng Wang, Deputy Mayor of Zhengzhou and Party Secretary of the Zhengdong New District, “Zhengzhou will serve as a testing ground for MIT’s research on forward-looking urbanism, cutting-edge technologies, and innovative social and public policies. Together we can demonstrate how these comprehensive strategies can benefit new city developments across China.”

China’s demographic shift has been both rapid and dramatic. Only 13 percent of China’s inhabitants lived in cities in 1950. That percentage is projected to exceed 60 percent by 2030. In many ways, Zhengdong New District’s life cycle was typical of the developments built to manage China’s metamorphosis: centralized coordination, rapid construction, relocation of key state-owned industries, a few years of silence, and finally, a boom.

Yet like that of China’s urbanization, most Zhengzhou’s history remains to be written.

“Chinese cities are in a transitional stage,” says Zhengzhen Tan, executive director of MIT-CFC. “For the first 30 years, the focus was on efficiency, on building the cities and facilities, and getting people to move there. Now, and for the next 30 years, the focus will be on quality of life, on making these urban centers socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable. This is where MIT can be particularly relevant in Chinese development.”

An urban planner trained in Shanghai and Singapore, Tan believes that China and its singular development experience can also be relevant to MIT.

“This has all taken place so quickly,” says Tan, who practiced in London and Vancouver before joining MIT two years ago. “There is very limited data and knowledge available on China’s urbanization and economic development, particularly in the West. This is an excellent opportunity for the West to sample a bit of Chinese wisdom, and to acquire practical knowledge and strategies that can benefit other emerging economies.”

MIT-CFC is not the first engagement among MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, DUSP, CRE, and China.

“We began our collaboration with China over 30 years ago, right when the country started to urbanize,” says Eran Ben-Joseph, head of DUSP. “Now, with the growing impact and importance of China, we want to be even more involved, both to help shape research, and to acquire and disseminate professional practices. Siqi’s new program is a remarkable initiative, which addresses urbanization from multiple perspectives — urban planning, policy, development, real estate, and environment. It can provide some very important lessons.”

Students and researchers at MIT will have additional opportunities to observe and help shape China’s urbanization. After visiting China this past July, five student urban innovation start-up teams have launched pilot projects in various Chinese cities.

“I think MIT-CFC will become a window onto China’s urbanization, for MIT, and for our school,” says Zheng. “And a window onto MIT for China.”

Story originally published December 6, 2018 by Ken Shulman, School of Architecture and Planning for MIT News.