City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Technologised Chinese futures versus age-old stories

Back in May 2010, I visited the Shanghai Expo. I was in China to help lead a creative cities symposium in Hong Kong and then as a speaker (with Finland’s/Kone’s Anne Stenros, The Young Foundation’s Geoff Mulgan, Shanghai academic Wenhui Shan and others) on a ‘social life of cities’ panel at Cisco’s Partnership for Urban Innovation conference in Shanghai.

The Expo is old news now, in a way, as it’s been covered elsewhere in depth (and breadth) and is coming to an end any day. Of course, it is wonderful, thought-provoking, banal, confronting and inspiring all at once. Most of that coverage has focused on the architecture, and other aspects, of the country pavilions, not unreasonably. There are some extraordinary buildings and spaces, for sure — such as Heatherwick’s UK pavilion (the winner), the Netherlands pavilion, the Danish pavilion by BIG, Austria’s, China’s, Switzerland’s, Spain’s and Australia’s.

A selection of country pavilions

But it’s worth noting that the country pavilions are only one part of the show. The site is vast, and they cover a good proportion of it, but there are also pavilions for cities, regions and themes, such as Urban Best Practices (which features your correspondent, of which more later).

There are also pavilions for corporations and industries. You’ll wander past a vast building with just ‘OIL’ written on it, for instance.

I thought I’d write about two of these corporate pavilions, however, featuring some EXCLUSIVE (possibly, maybe) footage from both, as these experiences may be as revealing of 2010 as any other part of the Expo. In particular, I’m still trying to understand why the future city visions in both the General Motors and Cisco pavilion experiences share almost exactly the same narrative.

As with most things contemporary China, the scale of the entire enterprise is almost overwhelming to ‘western’ eyes. As is the scale of the queues for that matter, though I’m part of a group whisked through courtesy of Cisco’s largesse. The heat is equally affecting, though the entrance queue is underneath a canopy structure that wafts cooling water vapour over the crowds.

The site is equal in size to that of a small town — and probably far greater in infrastructure requirements. It takes in both sides of the river, with ferries, bridges and tunnels as connections. It’s internally threaded by roads populated only by electric vehicles. The pavilions are often enormous. Elsewhere, it’s an odd landscape of big boxes of various forms, with not much in the way of shelter in-between — although a very big High Line-like elevated platform curves through half the site, allowing some shade and respite from the humidity.

What’s also clear, though, at least on our visit, is that it’s hugely popular, and with a largely Chinese audience. I’m sure the foreign visitor numbers must be reasonable, and generate a reasonable ROI for Shanghai too (who spent more money on this than Beijing spent on the Olympics, by way of comparison.) However, the vast majority of people you see are Chinese. It’s clear that, in a country of 1.3bn people rapidly growing wealthier, the local tourism market is ‘a reasonable opportunity’.

But as I’m here with Cisco, I am part of a group (along with colleagues from the World Bank, Climate Group, Viñoly architects and the usual confection of amiable flotsam and jetsam one ends up with at conferences like this) that has to visit the Cisco pavilion. We also have to visit the General Motors pavilion too, for reasons which aren’t clear, but both are instructive, and on reflection possibly more interesting and revealing than the country pavilions.

The scale of some of the corporate pavilions is extraordinary. Local brands I know, like China Aviation and Broad, and those I don’t, like CSSC (China State Shipbuilding Corporation), Bank of Communications and many others. One pavilion has an giant media facade feigning a rippling mercury-like surface. Some are vast, hangar-like spaces. The CSSC pavilion is roughly the size of a football stadium.

They’re fascinating in their construction, a pragmatic, reconfigurable pre-fabricated architecture, but built as platforms for experience, akin to Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palace. LEDs are everywhere, in both screen and light format. The Oil pavilion has a chamfered edge on one corner in order to house a giant screen.

And of course, the Coca-Cola Happiness Factory.

Both Cisco and GM pavilions are large white-grey boxes and fairly undistinguished, architecturally-speaking. Apparently both were extremely expensive, but it’s hard to see where the money was spent. The fit-out in both, and especially the Cisco pavilion, is in the Drab Functional style that would be familiar to anyone whose spent any time working in a US corporation. It’s the mis-en-scéne of the cubicle farm, sans cubicles.

As we move through both, however, it becomes clear where the money has been spent: in media production and experience design, which is perhaps a general indication of where much of the financial capital in built environment design work might start flowing.

General Motors steps up to the plate first, and after an unidentifiable but pleasing lunch, and a series of short films outlining a history of urban mobility (which, unsurprisingly, leans heavily on the car), our group is led into a huge, cinema-sized auditorium, handed headphones and ushered into large bucket seats. The light is purple-ish and low, but a closer look reveals that the seats are mounted on some kind of pinion. The screen in front of us is huge. The lights go down, and an introduction plays over the PA in English and Mandarin.

We’re about to see a vision of Shanghai in 2030. The movie starts. I filmed bits of it on my camera. Here they are, jump-cut together:

It turned out that the seats could tilt, yaw and roll, in sync with the view from whatever vehicle we were in, and the entire film, and urban vision, was vehicle-centric. We had headphones on with English translation, which you won’t hear in the movie I’m afraid.

We then file out, somewhat bewildered, following arrows on marvellous signs saying things like ‘MORE EXPERIENCE’, and move over to the Cisco pavilion.

This is similar, in that we get a distanced greeting (a waving hostess on a video screen, who later, of course, only turns out to be 20 metres away in a telepresence booth), and then are ushered into a smaller space to watch a movie.

We’re about to see a vision of Hong Kong (possibly) in 2020. The movie starts. I filmed bits of it on my camera. Here they are, jump-cut together:

Now, I wasn’t able to film these things coherently enough to enable either narrative to be clear, but what seemed incredible are the similarities between the movies. Bear in mind these are the chosen narratives of two entirely different corporations, admittedly both American in essence, in two entirely different buildings.

The cities are similar in both, though GM-Shanghai pans to reveal more of their vision. It is ludicrous to imagine that — even working at contemporary Chinese pace — Shanghai might be effectively entirely rebuilt in 20 years, as suggested here. Though it does make you wonder about the anticipated pace of change in China. Western cities will essentially look exactly the same in 20 years, more or less; Chinese cities are now changing far more rapidly. These incredible photos in the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre reveal the change over the last 20–25 years:

But will they actually pick up the pace over the next two decades, or must they slow down?

The biomorphic form of buildings and vehicles in GM-Shanghai tell us more about architectural and industrial design visions in 2010 than 2030, as is almost always the case with such visions. But the way the city is threaded with highways, composed of highways, almost using them as structural support, as interface, almost as raison d’etre, tells us more about GM’s ambitions in this market. It speaks to patterns of urban development in China too, but it would be depressing to see that trajectory spin out of control in such fashion.

Leaving aside the core narratives, which we’ll come to, the film is essentially about movement. Transport is all via personal rapid transit (PRT) of some kind. They’re all individual, autonomous vehicles, except for one enormous, town-sized high speed train at one point. No-one is moving in anything other than PRT, save for a few people walking. Somehow everyone is still very slim, despite the lack of physical activity on show. The cars themselves are also interfaces. They slide up apartment buildings and right into apartments, where they become living space. The cars are everything.

At the end of the film, the entire screen slides out of the way to reveal that we’re actually sitting in a circular amphitheatre which is now clearly twice the size we thought it was, and in come three of the cars that we’ve just watched in the movie. They’re surrounded by dancers, wearing what can only be described as future clothes, who prance, climb and pose with the vehicles as best they can.

In Cisco’s film, we see less of a future city vision, though it starts with a zoom into a similar set of skyscrapers. Where GM’s film is essentially about cars, Cisco’s is essentially about its smart city vision, and heavy on the telepresence and sensors. It starts with a group of city officials using a holographic real-time city model to assess the effects of a tornado which is about to hit the city, re-routing transit in real-time and sending out emergency signals. Again, we’ll look at the exo-narrative in a moment.

After the movie in the Cisco pavilion, we head upstairs for a series of low-key demonstrations of contemporary versions of these technologies available now. To the trained eye, it’s clear that parts of even this are ‘smoke and mirrors’ mock-ups, co-ordinated by Cisco’s versions of Disneyland ‘cast members’, even though many of these initial smart city, smart healthcare technologies are now in place and available ‘for sale’ from the likes of Cisco, IBM, Siemens et al.

Just as the design of cars and buildings tell us about 2010, the user interfaces in both pavilions are multi-touch and pervasive. There is much Minority Report-ery going on everywhere. The iPhone has melted into the architecture. The only difference is that the car is the site of the interface in the GM movie, whereas Cisco’s film has large flat panel displays on almost all walls in the houses. Everywhere is interface, potentially. Devices, when they exist as discreet and indeed discreet devices, are small slivers of glass. There’s barely a metal in sight.

But while it’s not difficult to see why the interfaces might be consistent in design in both films, is it not bizarre that there are two or three narratives running through both films, and they’re the same?

Narrative thread one: both movies involved a young woman leaving her boyfriend because he’s too busy, and focusing his attention elsewhere; GM-boyfriend is playing videogames too much; Cisco-boyfriend is an obsessive stormchasing photographer. In both, the girls leave them to head off to the airport (which is communicated via video message in both of course) and in both, they’re chased to the airport by their partners; again, with GM- or Cisco-centric various technologies deployed along the way to help them. Both GM-boyfriend and Cisco-boyfriend get there just in time, firing off missives of love along the way, to convince girlfriend not to fly away.

Narrative thread two: both movies also involve a woman giving birth. In GM-Shanghai, she makes it to the hospital thanks to intelligent transport systems ‘parting the waves of traffic’ for the ambulance (though I seem to recall that the father, who is sound-mixing a broadcast of a major concert (see later) misses the actual birth by minutes — as birth and concert crescendo are synchronised. An odd narrative choice?) In Cisco-HK, there is an pre-natal examination at a distance, with the mother-to-be holding a device over her womb with which the doctor can sense vital signs, progress etc. I think there’s a complication with the birth, but the hospital services (private room of course) are seamlessly and automatically booked and geared up via integrated smart healthcare, and there’s a happy ending, natch.

Narrative thread three: both movies also heavily feature intergenerational issues and interaction. In Cisco-HK, the grandson’s school is evacuated due to the tornado (incidentally, the classroom featured a real-time lecture beamed in from elsewhere, which is a pedagogical model more about cost-cutting than learning, I’d suggest) and the young boy heads for his grandmother’s apartment, which is presumably nearby. Her apartment has face recognition technology on her door access system, which works seamlessly to let him in. This, after much inter-generational chat about the imminent birth at the start of the movie. In GM-Shanghai, there is a slightly bizarre parent/child relationship, which for some reason appears to involve the blind daughter getting her sight back at after a Chinese version of Jean-Michel Jarre-meets-Elton John performs a concert. That’s the bit with the doves.

That’s it. That’s what both movies were about; how technology can overcome issues to do with having babies, young romance in the face of obsessive occupational pursuits, and inter-generational communication.

Additionally, all the work on show is ‘knowledge work’, as far as we can see — the immediately visible occupations are photographer, doctor, musician, teacher. This is also perhaps a telling aspiration, given China’s current strategic role as ‘workshop of the world’, as discussed at last year’s Icograda conference around ‘Made in China/Designed in China’.

But what does it mean that both these movies are essentially the same? That a screenwriter smartly got paid twice for the same bit of work, assuming no-one would go into both Cisco and GM pavilions, and that Cisco and GM wouldn’t talk to each other? Or that there are some universal grand narratives underpinning Sino-US corporate culture? Or at least a US corporate understanding of Chinese culture? Or are these genuinely core Chinese narratives, produced locally? Or are these universal narratives to do with universal values?

I used the phrase ‘universal values’ advisedly, in this week of all weeks. The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded a few days ago to Liu Xiaobo, amidst fascinating discussions in China around whether there are ‘universal values’, or ‘pushi jiazhi’, that China should move towards, including various forms of democracy. The Economist has an excellent summary of the debates (written before the Nobel committee’s announcement, though half-anticipating it) and includes the following quote from Qin Xiao, a state-owned bank chairman who retired recently with a ‘demob-happy’ rhetorical flourish:

Universal values tell us that government serves the people, that assets belong to the public and that urbanisation is for the sake of people’s happiness [Qin Xiao, quoted in The Economist; see also this further summary]

If these are the universal values being furiously discussed in contemporary China, there’s little of that on display in the Cisco and GM pavilions. There, the values revolve around more everyday concerns: romance, work, family. This is a vision for everyday citizens, after all, though it’s difficult to imagine a visiting family from Wuhan looking for a cash register at the end of the Cisco pavilion and saying “Yes, I’d like to buy one of those $100,000 telepresence systems please …”, never mind procuring an urban sensing and control system.

What are the corporate pavilions for, then? They’re in a grand tradition of such things, to do with conjuring and conveying visions of a possible future, partly so that “youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future”, in the words of Walt Disney, but also priming culture with latent desire for such things, under which you’d also file Epcot centres and the like. (That subject is one for another day — or rather, I’d look to Enrique Ramirez, Michael Trudgeon and Greg Allen to pick that apart a little more.)

So this is latent desire in a more abstract sense, a more general sense of consumption of a possible future. As Walter Benjamin wrote of the 1861 Great Exhibition in London, the grand-daddy of all these Expos, “the masses, barred from consuming, learned empathy with exchange value”. (This is perhaps an interesting parallel with the Chinese population currently learning to be consumers too.)

The role of Expos, at least in this corporate arena, is to depict a desirable future, not perhaps in convincing fashion but in compelling fashion. The production values at play in both these pavilions are indeed compelling, but the narratives feel rootless, hovering between places (‘Sino-US corporate’) rather than located. As such, they don’t feel realistic enough to genuinely compel.

Briefly, both movies are instructive in terms of how they depict a highly technologised future. As both are expensive sales pitches, we can’t expect obvious critique. Yet I suspect future visions have to be either relatively plausible or surreal to genuinely engage, and these are neither. A stretched plausibility, obviously, but with something of the grain of explicable technology. The plausible reality of urban technology is that it’s hacked together and highly variable; “contingent”, as in the Keiichi Matsuda and BERG visions I recently wrote about.

For all their gleaming perfection, the reality is that there’d be some Heath Robinson-esque legacy systems — probably even some Excel macros, heaven help us — involved somewhere in those intelligent transport systems and face recognition technologies. These visions raise questions as much as they suggest solutions. For instance, do we really want to re-construct something as straightforward as ‘the door’? Let’s say the little boy in the Cisco film had just come from a face-painting class at school, and so had a tiger painted on his face. The facial recognition system fails; the anxious grandmother, increasingly dependent on such systems, refuses to take a chance on an unidentified person as a natural emergency approaches, and doesn’t let him in. The incoming tornado hurls his eight-year old body into the sky like a rag doll …

No-one wants to see that. This is a form of questioning critique that you won’t see here, and obviously this is not the place for such things. But should we expect more from corporate portrayals of technology, or of technologised futures? Would it not be actually more convincing to demonstrate that these things had been thought-through for a moment?

This Expo’s theme was “Better city, better life”, and in the face of the biggest, most rapid and extraordinary urbanisation in human existence, that is an entirely apposite theme indeed. But there is little here to pick apart what that really means, from the post-Expo future of the Expo site, to the end-of-lifecycle destinations for all those pavilions, to the real narratives unfolding in Chinese cities (and indeed ‘Western’ cities), to the considered explorations of various urban futures that we saw in Beijing a year before, or in the symposium on creative cities in Hong Kong we’d had two days previous.

Nor is their room for the rich voice of experience, such as Sidney Rittenberg in this excellent interview also in The Economist. He sees China — as a “we society” rather than a “me society”, in his words — as potentially full of hope, despite enduring two jail lengthy sentences there.

Some of the thematic sections of the Expo, like the Urban Best Practices arena, do begin to approach wider issues, but the corporate pavilions, as you would expect, remain unconvincing from almost every angle. And who knows what might have been going on in that ‘Oil’ pavilion.

That both GM and Cisco visions revolve around the same narratives suggests there is some attempt to locate or converge on universal concerns of some kind, but the real debate over universal values, aspirations and progress in China is happening elsewhere, however, and it’s fascinating.

As their role is traditionally understood, we can’t expect an Expo to explore all these angles, but perhaps it would be more interesting, more useful, more engaging, and more broadly convincing if it did.

View all my Shanghai Expo photos at Flickr. This piece originally published at on October 23, 2010.


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