Chatting the Future with Anna Greenspan

Futurist Anna Greenspan leads our new Accelerated City walk in Shanghai, a look at China’s economic and political growth. A professor at NYU in Shanghai, Greenspan has a unique, insider perspective on the accelerated change here. We sat down with her for some noodles in Xintandi and asked her about her current work. Context: Your current book project looks at the “reemergence of Shanghai in the 21st century.” What do you mean by this? A city of over 20 million and major economic center, I thought Shanghai had already emerged?


Greenspan: Shanghai is a city oriented to the future. Of course, as you say, it is already an important global hub, but its ambitions for itself go far beyond that. Shanghai’s aim is to become a—if not the—key financial and cultural center of the 21st century. It sees itself occupying a position similar to that of London or New York in the 19th and 20th centuries. Shanghai today, then, recalls these older global cities in that it is engaged in the (neo)modernist project of consciously creating a ‘metropolis of the future’. It is in this sense that it has not yet ‘emerged.’


Context: A lot of people are decrying the disappearance of “old Shanghai” under the bulldozers of new Shanghai. We look at this issue on the Accelerated Shanghai walk. What’s your take on this issue? Is the development of Shanghai coming at the price of lost heritage?


Greenspan: My view is that the relationship between development and preservation in Shanghai is much more nuanced than people generally suspect. It is true that at the beginning of Shanghai’s contemporary period of hyper-growth the city cared little for the existing urban landscape and followed a development strategy of raze and replace. By the end of the 1990s, however, a significant awareness of the importance of architectural heritage started to spread in both the government and in civic society.

Today, there are zones where much is still being destroyed but there are also many areas where a whole host of interesting experiments in preservation are taking place (some successful, some not). In this respect Shanghai is much better than other cities in China (like Beijing). In our walk the first area we pass is slated for destruction. The bulldozers have already been through and much has been destroyed, though you can still see the remnants of what once was. Later we pass through a zone that tries to highlight and in some places preserve some of the old industrial heritage of the area. One building in particular ‘The Waterhouse’  designed by local designers Neri & Hu is an especially excellent example of preservation and re-use.


Context: How are Chinese attitudes to growth and development changing?


Greenspan: On the one hand China is still a place that believes in progress and has faith in development, which, I think, accounts for some of the palpable excitement that one feels here.  Nevertheless, especially in the last 2 or 3 years there has been increasing criticism of the corruption involved in some of the development projects, and a growing concern over the speculative property bubble that is fuelling much of the growth. Many feel there is truth in the cliché that Shanghai software doesn’t match its hardware. My own sense is that Shanghai today is experiencing a post-Expo period of stagnation. Many of the projects including some we see on the walk have remained in the same state for the last couple of years. I doubt the city will stay like this for very long and am looking forward to what comes next!


Context: You’ve done a lot of work and research on tech development in India. There’s been much talk about China working its way up the value chain, and indeed there’s a lot of growth in the creative industries in Beijing and Shanghai. What’s your perspective on this? Will China soon overtake the U.S. on intellectual property fronts? Is the next Facebook (or Google) going to come out of China?


Greenspan: Much discussion of this question draws attention to the important distinction between process innovation (revolutionary changes in how things are manufactured and distributed) and product innovation. China has mastered the former but is lacking in the latter. There is no doubt that the fast and cheap cluster of electronic production—especially in Shenzhen—was hugely innovative and has had a revolutionary impact throughout the world. This was done, it should be noted, outside of any intellectual property regime.

The question is, though, as the economy shifts, what will come next? Does China have the right mix of creativity and entrepreneurship to power the next great wave of technological innovation? This is still an open question. However, I do believe that the answer is of crucial importance to the whole issue of China’s rise.


Context: In the course of our Accelerated City walk we pass by a number of buildings and through several urban spaces. Which one is your favorite? Why?


Greenspan: What I like about this walk are the extreme contrasts, so it’s hard to pick out one isolated space. I’m a big fan of street traders and the walk includes a few vibrant street markets. If I had to pick one spot, however, it would be right at the end of Wangjiamatou Lu. Much of this zone is rubble and out of the destruction you can see the beginnings of new towers that will soon replace the old neighborhood. Nearby are the makeshift homes of the migrant workers who are building up the area. Just off the street they have cleared a patch out of the debris and planted a large vegetable garden. It is an wonderful example of urban farming!


Context: What’s on the agenda in the coming six months for Anna Greenspan?


Greenspan: My first priority is finishing the book. But besides that I am quite excited about a project I am working on with my colleagues at the Shanghai Studies Symposium. This is a newly launched research hub that aims to pull together both local and international scholarship about Shanghai. Next year we are planning a year-long research project on creativity and the city. Part of this will involve monthly conversations on a variety of topics including cinema, urbanism, technological innovation, food cultures and sexuality.  Details will soon be made available on our website.


Anna Greenspan leads our Accelerated City walking tour of Shanghai, which runs as both a group and private walk and finishes with a lovely cocktail atop Shanghai’s tallest building. To learn more, visit our website.