Shanghai surprise: selling education and urbanism to Asia

Even in this image-saturated era, pictures of far-off places still have the capacity to make our eyes widen.

When Dominic Barton, managing director of the global consulting firm McKinsey & Co., flashed before-and-after slides of Shanghai at the Liberal thinkers’ conference in Montreal this afternoon, the room let out a collective gasp: the fusty skyline of only seven years ago replaced by the glint of sky-scraping boom.

Since it’s the story of the age, you’d think we’d have long since absorbed the magnitude of China’s transformation. Apparently not. Barton’s talk kept looping back to our failure to grasp its “scale.” His point was that we know Asia is growing, but we haven’t yet assimilated the size of the cities, the problems, the chances to make a lot of money.

“When we’re talking about the urbanization and change that’s going on, you have to see it to feel it,” he said. “And I think as Canadians we have to have more people seeing it, the actual scale of what’s going on.”

In a wide-ranging presentation, he highlighted two ripe economic opportunities for Canada that I don’t think government policy now gives us the best chance of exploiting: education and city-building.

On education, he was particularly strong. At any given time, Barton estimated, a billion Asians need education services. Their home countries don’t have anywhere near the capacity. For example, India needs to train an estimated 50 million a year at the vocational school level, and is able to handle about four million.

Barton is no doubt right when he says Canadians don’t comprehend that enormous demand for schooling. “This doesn’t mean adding a secondary campus to Simon Fraser University or UBC,” he said. “We’re talking about an opportunity to educate five to seven million people in Canada, or taking our capability and doing it over there.”

Actually, I’m sure most Canadians would think adding a second campus to a university or two—Barton’s example of thinking way too small—would be big stuff. Provincial education departments are not generally oriented toward fostering an export service industry. Maybe this is an area where Ottawa could play a networking role (something Liberals are talking about in Montreal this weekend), bringing together provincial educational policy with federal trade and economic strategy.

Then there’s the need to build cities—not buildings, cities. “China is going to have 250 cities with over a million people in it by 2030,” Barton said. Just to put that in context, Europe today has 35. Many of these cities are not yet built.”

He noted that there are no companies, in Canada or anyplace else, whose business is designing and building efficient cities. He sees no reason Canadian governments and entrepreneurs couldn’t step up to the plate.

It’s a stirring concept. And yet I wonder if we are ambitious enough in what we demand of our own cities to take on this epochal challenge. A small case to consider: why is Winnipeg’s new Manitoba Hydro Place, a showcase for energy-efficiency designed by Toronto architect Bruce Kuwabara, working with the German energy consultants Transsolar, so unique?

We need to demand urban planning and building codes that make that sort of design commonplace. It’s not just about how we want to live; it’s about what we’ve got to sell. Listen to Barton: “Chinese governments, mayors and so forth, are very worried how are we going to [build urban infrastructure] with the resources we have and without boiling the planet—they actually do worry about that type of thing.”

So should we.

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