Inside Smart Cities cover

Lots of research has been conducted into the way that ‘big ideas’ in policy-making seem to travel around the world increasingly rapidly, but also undergo processes of ‘translation’ as they are implemented in different places.  (Perhaps the fullest treatment of this phenomenon is provided in Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore’s 2015 book on ‘Fast Policy’.) It’s possible to interpret the ‘smart city’ concept through this lens – and I’m interested in the ways that it has come to land in China specifically.

I visited the city of Wuhan last year. Wuhan is one of China’s rising economic stars (and also one of the case studies in our smart eco-cities research project), but not yet part of the premier ‘Tier I’ league. My original hope was to set up some research looking into its longstanding and ongoing ‘twinning’ arrangement with the city of Manchester.  In the end, that particular line of enquiry didn’t go too far, but my visit did form the basis of a co-authored chapter in a book published by Routledge today.

The book as a whole explores the varied ways that ‘smart city’ technology is being implemented in real-world urban space around the world.  Our chapter on Wuhan explores the need to understand this process as part of a broader digitisation of everyday life – it suggests that analyses focused on policy-making or entrepreneurial governance arrangements are missing the big picture. Sticking with the ‘official’ version of the smart city, though, we try to identify what might be distinctive about the Chinese approach to all this, using the example of Wuhan as a relatively ‘ordinary’ city in the Chinese context (commentators usually tend to focus on more wealthy showcase cities on the East coast).

You can download a pdf of the ‘accepted manuscript’ here. (Accepted manuscript = the version before production, copy-editing and proof reading.)

Final Published Version:

Cowley, R., Caprotti, F., Ferretti, M. and Zhong, C. (2018). Ordinary Chinese Smart Cities: The Case of Wuhan.  In Karvonen, A., Cugurullo, F. and Caprotti, F. (eds) Inside Smart Cities: Place, Politics and Urban Innovation. London: Routledge, pp.45-64. ISBN: 978-0815348689.


Commentaries on future-oriented Chinese urban development tend to focus on showcase projects underway in wealthy coastal cities. This chapter instead sheds light on the way that the smart has been integrated into more ‘ordinary’ Chinese urban life, using the case of Wuhan, a ‘Tier II’ city in Central China. It explores the conditions of the emergence of Wuhan’s smart city activities from three perspectives. First, it outlines a series of ‘vertical’ enabling factors, whereby an international body of discourse and practice has been ‘translated’ into national Chinese urban policies. Second, it considers the simultaneous significance of ‘horizontal’ links between Wuhan’s local government, city governments abroad, local private enterprises, and foreign firms. Third, it relates Wuhan’s smart credentials to a broader process of digitalisation of everyday life in the city. It concludes by reflecting on the distinctive characteristics of Chinese smart urbanism, as exemplified by Wuhan, and finally draws out some implications for future research into smart cities elsewhere. Specifically, it proposes that the smart city is most usefully approached as a shifting and locally inflected concept which not only channels multiple policy agendas, but also reflects broader changes to urban space and governance in particular contexts.

London, 12 September 2018