The Geopolitics of Sustainability and Smart City Construction in US-China Relations

Engineering and Society; Political Science; Science and Technology Studies; Urban Studies and Planning; International Relations

The exploratory project offers a multidisciplinary investigation to unfold the co-construction of technology, national identity, and the multinodal US-China relations in building future smart cities.

Research Interests
  • Transnational & Global Studies
  • Global Strategy and Competition
  • Standardization: history, politics and practice
  • Smart Cities
  • Sustainability
  • international organizations
  • US-China relation

Lookingat public rhetoric over the last decade, the United States and China are pittedas rival superpowers that leverage political and industrial strengths ininternational combat in what might eventually lead to mutually destructive action.However, scholars from history and politicalscience have questioned such simple polarizing narratives. On theone hand, while the United States and China arealready one another’s largest concerns, their differences in wealth,population, and geopolitics put them on different paths. On the other hand, evidencehas shown that despite the growinginternational competition, the US and China still share essentially significantcommon interests, goals and resources grounded in their inseparable politicaland economic entanglement since 1970s often centered on the development ofscience and technology. Respecting these similarities/differences can lead tomutually beneficial collaboration and research on sharedproblems ofmodern life.  Knowing how to avoid mutualdestruction, or at least unproductive engagement, requires knowing empiricallywhere cultural, technical, and regional strengths are deployed in the nodes ofinternational non-governmental organizations shaping transnational innovationand trade, domestic sociotechnical experimentation, and the critical globalagreements that shape local politics.  

Scholarlycommunities from political science and science and technologies studies (STS)have attempted to grapple with these engagements. This has led toproductive deconstruction of our assumptions of rivalry such as theaforementioned asymmetric rivalry, but without the rich empirical descriptionof where stakeholders from both countries engage with one another to (dis)advantagethe competition. Reciprocally, STS scholars have strong conceptual andmethodological techniques for unpacking sociotechnical systems as hybridspaces ofstate driven policy, culture, historical precedence, and technological decisionmaking. While highly productive in generating case studies in the U.S. or China, this approachis missing broader theoretical grounding in international relationships and comparativepolitical economy. The tendency in STS is also to focus on social movements fightingagainst government and corporate action through the lens of “democracy”, awestern concept often discounting non-western values, political systems, as wellas collaboration and positive engagement between the North and South.

Theexploratory project aims to address this novel theoretical and empiricalchallenge, through investigating the co-construction of technology, nationalidentity, and the multinodal US-China relations in smart sustainable citybuilding. “Smart city" is a rising techno-scientific paradigm mobilized byboth US and Chinese governments for future urban planning. Both countries usesimilar engineering models composed of internet, big data, and artificialintelligence to legitimate a sustainable and efficient living environment.Operating these facilities also requires shared global product chains,international standards, as well as research and regulatory coordination acrossthe national border. In other words, what constitutes the US-China relation, isnot just economic, ideological or technical rivalry, but a series of sharedhybrid socio-political-technical discourses and infrastructures, and anextremely complex, dynamic multinodal network containing not just two nations,but multiple national, international, and transnational public and privatesectors, as well as NGOs, academic researchers and citizens from localsocieties who interact closely and constantly in their daily life or businesspractice.

The proposed research would requirescholars that are capable of bridging the macro perspectives of transnationalpolitical tensions, regional collaboration strategies, and comparative politicswith the micro and meso scale from STS. This would require the developmentof a novel research framework and comparative case studies on “cities” as acollaborative and competition space where the boundary between the local andthe global are redefined by various social and political forces. Our investigation plan and deliverables containstwo parts:

1.      A mesoscale conceptual framework:

By integrating the political theories ofpower/hegemony, imagined community with the STS (Science &TechnologyStudies) approach on socio-technicalimaginaries/socio-technicalsystem and value-sensitivedesign, the project will develop a mesoscale framework to analyzethe multilayer interactions involved in imagining, depicting and materializingthe US-China relation. Particularly interesting are the socio-politicalepistemologies grounded in distinct cultural, political and economic conditionsin US and China.  The capacity toconstruct narratives of the future built environment necessitate an awarenessof: perceptions, interpretations and designs of city infrastructure; nature;mobility; sustainability and globalization; how international affairs andgeopolitics redefine these ontological claims and practice; and how themultilayered textured networks impact two nations’ diplomatic propositionstoward global trade, justice and related standard development.

2.      Empirical case studies

We will leverage the partnership with the Graduate School of Tsing HuaUniversity to develop comparative case studies of smart city construction in US(San Francisco) and China (Shenzhen), to inform our theoretical investigation.The funding will be used for PIs’ field work, conference travels, and hiring 2student research assistants for data collection, analysis, and help oncoordination among three UVa PIs and our colleagues in China.

Desired outcomes

  • Developing partnerships between STS scholars on grounds and those that have expertise in East Asia as it relates to regional geopolitics, China's domestic and international projects related to innovation and economic competitiveness, and political science and theory.
  • Begin the creation of international collaborations with Chinese universities and researchers that would be able to support the development of case studies for comparative analysis with U.S. based case studies.
  • Establish a baseline of empirical and theoretical grounding that would serve as a framework for future funding applications to government, university, and foundation sources.
  • Support the training of faculty and student research assistants in the interdisciplinary space of policy and STS, an emerging and rich opportunity for intellectual and practical contribution.
  • Host a digital collaboration space for the development of case study materials from diverse civic and academic partners, modeled loosely off of the asthma files and constructed with support from the UVA library staff.
  • Publication in conferences and disciplinary journals encouraging cross-disciplinary engagement.
  • Broadening the scope of traditionally Euro and U.S. analytical frameworks.