Situating Smart City Discourse in Strategic Urban Planning in China: Discursive Practices, Policy Networks, and Institutional Arrangements


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date15 Oct 2021


Facilitated by the advances in digital technologies and related big data techniques, the smart city strategy gradually serves as a flexible and generic means of addressing the increasingly complex and entangled urban challenges worldwide. In China, despite the variegated urban development landscapes and long-standing techno-centric critiques, the smart city initiatives are being woven into the contextualized urban development policies and agenda, and arguably involve collaborative government efforts in integrating and grounding heterogeneous smart interventions compatible with the locally determined goals. Questions then arise, including to what extent, under what conditions, and in what ways the notion of smart city has evolved and been embedded in the pre-existing urban policies or governance structures, and whether and how the governments could combine the resources and capacities to support the framing of cross-cutting urban issues as well as the ever-growing multiplicity of actors’ interactions within the Chinese smart city system.

This thesis is mainly divided into five chapters to critically assess and situate the smart city discourse within a wider urban landscape, thereby taking steps towards designing more coordinated and integrative policies and governance approaches to tackle the emerging smart city issues in China. Chapter 2 traces and discusses how the smart city concept has been discursively constructed, interpreted, and articulated in the existing Chinese knowledge space. Four city labels were studied in order to characterize the urban diagrams and discursive contexts for the emergence and promotion of smart city discourse. Chapter 3 deconstructs the positions of the smart city notion in the national policy discourse from a relational perspective. By exploring the guiding principles, prioritized topics, government actors, and policy diffusion patterns, this chapter provides the landscape of smart city policies and further identifies how and to what degree the smart city has been translated and aligned within broader urban development agenda. Chapter 4 focuses on what and how the policy strategies and instruments have been planned and adopted to steer and advance the smart city development at the local level. A category-based qualitative analysis was used to characterize the types and scale of the policy mix and taxonomies for both policy domains and instruments were constructed to provide an inventory of the policy measures. Combining the policy discourse, this chapter also discusses the diverse pathways available for the local governments and identifies a general policy framework situating the smart city activities. The overall findings suggest that rather than primarily guided by the smart city master plans or specialized construction leading offices, the basic policies concerning smart city planning seemed innovation and technology-oriented, with a rise of promoting digital economy and supply chains. Meanwhile, the policy discourse and government measures were unclear and sometimes overlapping, supported by seemly mono-dimensional instruments. With the collection of ideas, actors, instruments, arenas, networks identified, this research contributes to bridging the fragmented smart city policy landscape towards an integrative and nuanced top-level smart city planning in China.