Science as the Heart of “World-Class” Cities in Asia

Aihwa Ong, Professor of Socio-Cultural Anthropology and Southeast Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley

Scientific dreams are driving urban ambitions in Asia, and introducing new norms of what it means for a city to be considered “world-class.” In the recent past, major cities were defined by their financial roles in a stable architecture of global capitalism. The rapid rise of Asian economic powers, however, has fueled new visions of urban power at the frontiers of science. The new desire to be knowledge-hubs has recast urban imagination of risk, urban futures, and the transnational organization of global expertise.

Looking at urban innovations in Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Singapore, this talk unpacks the different projects that put science at the heart of the metropolis. These cities respond to risk by devising schemes that make productive use of uncertainty in global futures. Such anticipatory strategies of productive uncertainty build upon the Silicon Valley model, but resituated within an urban ecology of complex labor and lifestyle niches.

In Shanghai, the Knowledge and Innovation Community seeks to blend Silicon Valley research with Left Bank cultural ambiance. In Shenzhen, BGI, a genomic sequencing powerhouse capitalizes on China’s huge populations and meticulous labor. In Singapore, the One North Complex combines biotechnology science and high end lifestyle. Despite variations in imagination, infrastructure, and expertise, these Asian cities signal what is at stake in being world-class, i.e., to be global nodes of cutting-edge science that assembles expertise, actors and interests from around the world.