Suzhou: From Canals to Clouds 2.0


Some 66km inland from Shanghai is the ancient settlement of Suzhou. Today home to 13 million residents, the city is famous for its ancient canal system, temples and gardens – but maybe not for much longer. A series of only-in-Suzhou innovation and research clusters may redefine not just Suzhou, but global innovation infrastructure and output. The Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) is a fast growing experimental learning hub established two decades ago as a cooperative venture between Singapore and China, and is the focus of this piece.

On a visit to Singapore in 1978, Chinese reformist leader Deng Xiaoping was impressed. On a visit to China by Singaporean reformist leader Lee Kuan Yew in 1988, Deng is said to have sought lessons from Singapore to manage its then macroeconomic challenges. On a domestic tour of China’s south in 1992, Deng was frank about the value to China of Singapore’s experience: “Singapore’s social order is rather good. Its leaders exercise strict management. We should learn from their experience of economic and public administration.”

The Suzhou Industrial Park agreement was established between the Governments of Singapore and in Beijing on 26 February 1994. On the same day, the Suzhou Municipal Government and the Singapore Jurong Town Corporation signed the ”Agreement on Learning and Using Singapore’s Experience in Economic and Public Administration”. The “SIP” is the largest economic and technological collaboration project between the two governments.

Fast-forward to 2014, and the SIP is a major growth zone in which one-fifth (86) of the world’s Fortune 500 top companies have operations of some sort. For more than a decade it has enjoyed growth rates of more than 30% – well above the average Chinese growth rate for the same period. This makes it not only one of China’s but one of the world’s most competitive industrial zones.

China’s only formal state-level nanotechnology industrialization and innovation park, the plan for the SIP is promotion of biomedicine, cloud computing, nanotechnology, and other emerging industries. Nanotech is the “No. 1” project for technology intended within the zone. Of the $US25bn GDP in 2012, the biomedicine sector accounted for half.

So far the SIP has attracted $US21.67bn in foreign investment and double that in domestic investment. The SIP has also grown beyond its Singapore-China origins. Of its 288km2 jurisdiction, just 70km2 belongs to the China-Singapore cooperation zone. Investors are diverse by region: 42% are from Europe and America, 18% from Singapore, 13% from Japan and Korea, and 27% from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, and other regions.

With emphasis on innovation-based and service-oriented industries, a total of 3,300 foreign firms already have a presence in the zone. Over 200 VC firms are in the park, with more than $5bn to invest. With a planned residential population of 1.2mn, more than 10,000 expatriates from over 50 countries already call this corner of Suzhou home.

Away from numbers and goals, day-to-day life in the zone enjoys futuristic ‘Smart City’ characteristics. Schools, hospitals, hotels, administration buildings, restaurants and public transportation are all being plugged into a smart grid that will make better use of energy and information. Using a single ID number, it is planned to link all individual information on healthcare, education, social security and tax, changing the relationship between governments, people, countries and enterprises.

An example of Smart City infrastructure lies in traffic management. Peak-time traffic flows are intelligently adjusted via changing traffic light sequencing. Travel times in peak hour have fallen 15-20% as a result. Similarly, a computer system keeps track of the public bike-sharing program between docking stations, allowing areas low in bikes to be replenished. It is intended for the city’s clinics and hospitals to have all records connected to the cloud.

Beyond the typical tech and commercial stories arising from the SIP, the zone should be recognised for its remarkable international educational cooperation structures. Within the SIP is the Dushu Lake Higher Education Town, which covers four functional areas: higher education; bio-bay; and an innovative industry park and comprehensive development area for education, research and entrepreneurship. It is already home to more than 20 academies and nearly 80,000 teachers and students.

International universities have set up campuses, research institutes and joint academic programmes with Chinese universities in the SIP. These include: Paris Sorbonne, the National University of Singapore, Chicago, Paul-Valerie, Euromed Marseille Ecole de Management, Dayton, Monash and Liverpool Universities. In the case of Monash and Liverpool, a full degree-awarding joint venture partnership has been set up with China’s SouthEast and Xi’an Jiaotong Universities respectively. There has probably never been a site on earth with such a cluster of universities – from four continents – working on projects in this type of proximity to each other, let alone to one-fifth of the Fortune 500.

The SIP is furthermore not isolated as a hub for innovation in Suzhou. There are also two additional innovation hubs in the area – the Suzhou National High-Tech District, and the Kunshan New & High-tech industrial Development Zone. Duke University’s China campus is located in Kunshan. Suzhou is also home to Chinese universities including Soochow University, the Suzhou University of Science and Technology and the Changshu Institute of Technology.

Suzhou is evolving far beyond its ancient yet then pioneering canal system, to increasingly being a hub for clusters that may re-invent innovation networks and cooperation in ways the world has never before seen. At this stage in history there is a need to sustainably satisfy the rising demands of the billions of consumers around the globe. As with information technology already widely in use, there may also different future implications of related emerging technologies for privacy and welfare.

In sum, what’s happening in the city of Suzhou and its SIP in particular may ultimately serve not only as a learning hub for China. Rather, as the product of cooperation between two of the 20th century’s most successful economic reformers, Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kuan Yew, it may rather better become the focus of learning, directly and indirectly, for the whole world.

The author thanks Congyang Fan for research assistance for this article.





Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

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