State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Facilitating Science and Innovation in China

By Alison Miller

Last week, representatives from Columbia University traveled to Tianjin Binhai, China, to finalize a partnership with the Government of the Tianjin Binhai New Area.

Earth Institute Executive Director Steven Cohen describes the partnership: “Led by the Earth Institute’s Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management, and in coordination with multiple units of the Institute and the rest of the university, this partnership will develop programs of research, education and training to facilitate innovation, science and technology relating to sustainable urban development in the Tianjin Binhai New Area.

“The work fits squarely into the mission of the Earth Institute and we are excited about the potential that this opportunity provides for the university to continue to engage in China, a critical player in global sustainability.”

Columbia University representatives included Arthur Lerner-Lam, deputy director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; William Eimicke, professor of professional practice at the School of International and Public Affairs, director of the Picker Center for Executive Education and chair of the Earth Institute Management Advisory Board; Dong Guo, associate research scholar at the Earth Institute and associate director of the Research Program in Sustainability Policy and Management; Joann Baney, adjunct associate professor at the School of International and Public Affairs; and Kelsie DeFrancia, program manager at the Earth Institute’s Research Program in Sustainability Policy and Management, and myself.

Columbia University representatives on a tour in Tianjin Binhai.

Tianjin is a metropolitan area in Northeast China, a two-hour drive east of Beijing, and is one of four centrally controlled municipalities in China, along with Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing. It has a population of over 15 million, and its port, on the Bohai Sea, is among the 10 largest in the world. Over 100 Fortune 500 companies have investments, operations or local facilities in the city.

The Tianjin Binhai New Area (TBNA) district, formed in 2009, is at the center of several new national development strategies in China. Perhaps most importantly, it is the fourth designated Free Trade Zone, and the only one with a mandate to pioneer education innovation and related programs. It is also part of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Megaregion Development Strategy, a key feature of the Chinese president’s economic development plan. Despite its scope and scale, it is probably best known in the West for a major industrial accident in August 2015 which caused 173 deaths.

Innovation Space
Tour of the innovation space.

Tianjin Binhai New Area aims to serve as a hub for new industrial, financial and high-technology fields in China, with an intense focus on science and innovation. To help support the city’s endeavors in these areas, the government of TBNA is partnering with Columbia University in collaboration on research, education and training.

On Jan. 7, the Columbia delegation toured Tianjin Binhai with visits across the city including: its industrial area, the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city, the National Supercomputer Center, a brand new high speed rail facility, and a high-tech incubator housed by Tencent, a Chinese internet company. Local officials from the Central Business District, the Science and Technology Commission and the Eco-City area detailed the intense work on the part of the local and national governments to guide the development of this young city. Highlighting the unique geographic, political and economic assets of Binhai New Area, they described how well positioned the region is to capture global attention and attract vast resources, businesses and people.

“It is so impressive that Tianjin officials have developed a strategy plan that is focused on economic growth and sustainability,” Eimicke said. “It is using sustainable technology to fuel growth, including wind and solar power. Their high speed rail to Beijing is a marvel…twice as fast as by car and only $12 for a very comfortable economy class seat.”

Meeting between Columbia University representatives and the TIanjin Binhai New Area government representatives.
Art Lerner Lam presenting at the Forum on Innovation.

The day concluded with a meeting with the area’s top political official, Zong Guoying, member of the Standing Committee of Communist Party of China (CPC) Tianjin and party chief of CPC Binhai New Area Committee, and other party leaders and vice mayors of the city. Zong formally welcomed the delegation to Binhai and described the importance of the partnership with Columbia University.

On Jan. 8, following a formal ceremony for the signing of a memorandum of understanding, Miller, Lerner-Lam and Eimicke presented at a Forum on Innovation, hosted by the Tianjin Binhai Science and Technology Commission. The presentations emphasized the global focus of Columbia University, including the goals and work of the Global Centers; the nature and importance of basic and applied scientific research and their roles in innovation and economic growth; and a discussion of the concept of “internet plus” outlined by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang last year, which aims to boost the economy through advanced digitalization.

The forum also featured detailed presentations on the capacity and achievement of the TBNA to date.

“Tianjin Binhai New Area is already a superb model of innovation-centric development,” Lerner-Lam said. “The leadership of the TBNA and their partners in the private sector appreciate the role that basic research must play in ensuring that continued development remains sustainable. There is a mind-boggling nexus of scientific infrastructure (including supercomputing), engineering talent, entrepreneurship and competitive drive that could vault Tianjin and China’s Northeast Megaregion into global leaders in sustainable urban development, while demonstrating that environmental sensitivity and economic development go hand-in-hand.”

The memorandum of understanding is the first step in the development of a series of programs for research, education and executive training in the Tianjin Binhai New Area. Led by Columbia faculty and scientists, these programs would emphasize science, innovation and entrepreneurship, and sustainable development. In addition to crafting an executive training program for municipal leaders and one for local entrepreneurs, the collaboration would explore the potential of expanding the Global Executive Masters in Public Administration program at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs to China.

On the research and policy advising side, projects discussed include best practices for local government to support technology innovation and regulatory schemes to minimize associated risks; studies on effective policy measures of free trade zones; and the creation of environmental metrics and a scoring framework to evaluate the sustainability of start-up companies and technologies. This collaboration would serve to facilitate innovation and economic growth in the Tianjin Binhai area, while supporting the sustainability of the city itself and the businesses and operations that the region supports.

Art Lerner-Lam and Dong-Guo examining the National Supercomputer.

“We are very impressed with their commitment to work with Columbia, in that they will offer both financial resources to support research on the area and access to data, and advanced technology including the National Supercomputer, which is more powerful than those which many Columbia faculty currently have available,” Guo said.

The next stages of the partnership will include bringing in additional faculty and scientists from across the university and creating a steering committee comprised of Columbia and TBNA officials to outline the highest priority activities for the near term.

The importance of the university engaging with China was underscored by the fact that the trip to Tianjin coincided with a week-long trip by University President Lee Bollinger to Beijing.

Alison Miller is deputy executive director of the Earth Institute and associate director of the Research Program in Sustainability Policy and Management.

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