The Guangzhou Award for Urban Innovation

Date: Oct-Nov 2012
Team: Jeremy Smith
Areas of expertise: Policy

As part of his ongoing work as a founder of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), Ai Director Jeremy Smith was invited by the City of Guangzhou and its mayor, Mr Chen Jianhua, to serve on a technical committee that shortlisted cities excelling in urban innovation.  The first edition of the Guangzhou Award for Urban Innovation was held in October-November 2012 to  highlight five very different cities around the world, facing very different challenges.

Guangzhou (population 16 million, once known as Canton) is one of China’s top five cities, in the increasingly prosperous southern province of Guangdong.  The city’s GDP has increased at a rate of around 13% per year over the last 6 years. Guangzhou is now focusing much more on ‘next generation’ industries, and lays much greater emphasis on environmental sustainability and on green energy use.  In short, it wants to be recognized as a leading and progressive world city.

As a member of the Technical Committee, Jeremy evaluated some 250 initiatives from 150 cities in 56 countries.  The Committee had met in October to winnow the submissions down first to a longlist of 45, then a shortlist of 15 really exciting and stimulating entries.  An international jury of five academic experts made the final decisions. On this second visit Mr. Smith was also asked to chair a presentation session by ‘candidate’ cities on urban governance and administration.

The Committee examined factors such as importance of subject-matter, impact, replicability etc.  It also took into account the socio-economic situation of each city, as the context differs so widely between regions, countries and cities.

The final Award workshops and ceremony coincided with a meeting of the global large cities network, Metropolis, and also had the support of the international association United Cities and Local Governments(UCLG) which Mr. Smith had helped to create a decade ago.  Guangzhou also invited its Sister Cities to attend, so it was a truly international gathering from every continent.

All fifteen shortlisted cities were invited to attend and present their initiatives in a special workshop; in the event the representatives from Medellin, Colombia, were unable to attend and present their ‘Digital Medellin’ project, but the 14 others were all able to take part.  Each made a presentation to the group and audience for 8 minutes (sharp!) followed by questions, which helped to broaden people’s awareness and understanding.

The Awards Ceremony was held in November at the Opera House designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, and included a colourful cultural display by leading Chinese dancers, acrobats and singers.  The Award was given to these five cities:

  • Seoul (South Korea) – for its social programmes for young people: teenage prostitution and internet addiction
  • Vienna (Austria) – for its programme to welcome and initiate new migrants to the city
  • Kocaeli (Turkey) – for its earthquake preparation programme, with education, theatre and monitoring
  • Lilongwe (Malawi) – for its city strategy based on a new mentoring programme with Johannesburg

There were many other initiatives and projects worthy of note.  For example, the ‘Green Line’ initiative from Aguascalientes in Mexico. This involved a physical dimension, by building a long (12 km) thin park along and over a petrol pipeline, which had previously been the dividing line between the richer and poorer parts of the city.  But it was also a metaphor for a major social programme across the city.

Or take the Taiwan port city of Kaohsiung, which has initiated a 24 hour one-stop free phone service (dial 1999) for citizens, linked to all key departments who have to respond rapidly to issues raised.

Or again the city of Dakar, Senegal, with its use of more traditional paving stones for road surfacing, which – in a sandy soil – are far more permeable than normal modern tarmac, and which allows water to seep through rather than cause flooding… whilst also enabling local young people to be trained and do the job more cheaply than through normal road-building procurement processes.

Guangzhou aims to organise the Award every two years.  Ai sincerely hopes that this imaginative initiative takes root, and fulfils its goal of helping cities around the world to learn from each other more and more.  The city has used its membership of Metropolis and UCLG to promote the Award and reach a wider audience.  It fully met its commitment to respect the independence of the Technical Committee and Jury in reaching their decisions.

In return, Guangzhou will also benefit – not only from learning from other global cities, but by opening the eyes of far more people to the huge progress (not just economic) the city has made in recent years.


Jeremy Smith with the representative from prizewinning Lilongwe, Malawi

Mr Chen Jianhua, Mayor of Guangzhou

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