Wer ist unterwegs?

Aging society, energy transition and urban-rural cooperation 

Looking at blind spots to find shared concerns within Sino-German innovation cooperation 

Conversation with Prof. Dr. Doris Fischer, head of the expert Group of the Sino-German Innovation Platform, April 2018 


Where do you see untapped potential for collaboration in the field of sustainable urban development between China and Germany?

I do not claim to have a complete overview of all collaborations on sustainable urban development. However, I do think that we need improvements and innovation with regard to urban transportation, waste management and living / care for seniors in both countries. The challenges are not necessarily the same, but probably comparable. For China this means: How can we prevent all those second and third tier cities from undergoing the same cycle in transportation as Beijing and reshaping the cities in order to best accommodate private car use, only to realize later that this is detrimental to urban life quality? 

Transportation and waste management are topics dealt within cooperation projects. How do we best reduce waste? Both in Germany and China, consumers underestimate the waste problem because they do not see it. In Germany we are used to separating our garbage, but the ban by China on waste imports has highlighted the fact that while a good waste collection system can improve the use of waste, it does not make it disappear. Much of the waste is just moved to another place. It’s the same in China: the incredibly efficient informal waste system means that the waste disappears from the cities, but urban residents do not know where it goes. This not only increases the rural urban divide – as rural areas suffer most from waste disposal – it also leads to a misjudgment about the scale of the problem. 

 “There is another issue that troubles me. Given its urban infrastructure, how can China cater to the needs of an aging society in terms of residential housing and transport? ” 

I have been wondering for some years why the high-rise residential buildings in German towns are often seen as focal areas of social conflict, while this does not (yet?) seem to be the case in China. This latter aspect is not necessarily related to the aging society problem, but it may become related once we reach the stage where China faces increasing maintenance problems for all these rapidly-built residential buildings. In the long run, tearing down buildings to create new ones will not be sustainable. Maintenance will become a (costly) issue. Who is going to pay for it? How will the older generation live if the buildings lose their appeal and functionality? 

Another topic that will trouble us for decades to come is water – both in terms of its quantity and quality. Furthermore, how do we ensure that by making China more sustainable, we (that is China and other industrialized countries) do not just shift the problems to other countries or continents? China has tended to adopt a strategy of “developing first and cleaning up later”. If China seriously wants to become environmentally sustainable and develop further at the same time, how does this work without transplanting the unsustainable aspects of development into other countries? Will Chinese and international MNEs “behave better” in the course of Africa’s development? 

You advise the German government. What are your three recommendations for deepening the collaboration with China on sustainability in general?

My advisory function for the German government is on topics related to innovation, not sustainability as such. Therefore, repeating the importance of sustainability is an ongoing concern from my side. In this context, I particularly suggest collaboration in the fields of energy transition and the ageing society. Both are central concerns affecting the future of China and Germany, and both demand social, technical and economic innovation. 

How could we innovate in the cooperation itself? 

By undertaking more cooperative projects in which researchers from both sides look into issues in each of the two countries. Tripartite projects, in which researchers and cases from other countries are taken on board, are also very helpful in developing mutual understanding and new ideas. 

The program CITYMAKERS China – Germany is emphasizing social innovation and culture as a “fourth pillar of sustainable urban development” complementary to technological innovation and as a transversal topic. How do you reflect on this and where do you see the chances and boundaries for this more holistic approach? Very important! The ultimate rationale of sustainable urban development must be the quality of life in the cities. 

“Against the background of how our cities have evolved in the past, I would argue that looking at cities from the perspective of pedestrians, public transport users and cyclists would help a lot to improve life in the city.” 

And talking about science: Where do you see the need and the chances for integration of social sciences and cultural studies into the Sino-German discourse on sustainable urban development?

Very important, but difficult, since social sciences are seen in China as much more “political” than natural sciences. Or at least that is what the Chinese side assumes. My suggestion for the aging (urban) society takes this into account. This could be a topic where social science cooperation is feasible. Urban-rural cooperation in development – regarding the question of how to prevent urbanization from resulting in neglect of the countryside – could also be a topic for such integration in addition to energy transition: emphasis on renewable energies changes the power logics and economic rents within formerly centralized grid systems. 

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Prof. Dr. Doris Fischer is the head of the expert Group of the Sino-German innovation Platform initiated in 2011 by the German Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (BMBF) and the Chinese Ministry for Science and Technology (Most) as one of the key bilateral dialogue mechanisms in the frame of Germany’s and China’s strategic partnership. Fischer is also the Chair of the China Business and economics Faculty at the University of Würzburg, where one of her current research focuses on ecological sustainability aspects for innovation systems.

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