Written at a Shanghai coffee shop and despatched via the free wi-fi
I first came to China in 1983. At that time there were only one million fixed-line phones for one billion people - and of course no mobile network. Most international communication was by telex (a precursor of fax and email), powered by a fleet of bicycle couriers at the Chinese end. Twenty-three years on, I am back in China again - and what a difference!
Today there are around 400 million fixed phone lines, and well over 400 million mobiles serving a population of 1.4 billion. Broadband is available in all the big cities and towns. Telex has of course disappeared and fax is well on its way as just another moribund technology from the past. Telecommunication is dominated by SMS, email and voice. Wi-fi seems to be everywhere I look and much of it is free at hotels and coffee shops.
Even more impressive, the old infrastructure has been replaced by the modern, with new roads, rail and airports that largely surpass everything in the West, and certainly everything in the UK. The highways are big, fast and efficient, the airports on a truly international scale, and the telecoms installations... well I can only assume to be first class also - it works well. In fact it all seems to work well!
Most people coming here wax lyrical about the building programmes and the rapidity of the build, and there is certainly much to applaud. Beyond the infrastructure, the new housing, offices, business and science parks, hotels, restaurants, public buildings and facilities are all of an enviable standard. And yes, Shanghai is far bigger and grander than New York or London, and was realised in a fraction of the time. But underlying all of this is a huge infrastructure investment in electricity, gas, water, and telecom supply, plus waste disposal.
Of course with a population of 1.4 billion there is still much to do but even in the furthest reaches of this still agrarian economy, the mobile phone is ubiquitous. Not everyone is rich, not everyone has access to the best of everything but all societies are built like this. However, this one is being built five times faster than ever before!
In several blogs, articles and lectures I have pointed out that the freedom to communicate (by road, rail, air and bits) is inextricably linked, and vital, to the creation of wealth. If you cannot move atoms or bits then economies stagnate, which is axiomatic to me of several EU countries in particular.
I have received many reader/audience challenges to the validity of this statement of limitation or stagnation. Well, there are two very simple bounds that I cite. Those nations with no communication are the poorest on earth and those with the best are the richest. But there is ample quantification of these facts from the past up to the present day. In recent history China is the best practical exemplar I have seen. Just 20 years ago it was poor and today it is rich - and getting richer fast!
So is absolutely everything now positive in China and for the Chinese people as a result of all this change? Almost! People look better fed, better clothed, far fewer are smoking and it all looks so very American and English. But there is no free lunch and the biggest visible downer is pollution. Some cities can go several weeks at a time without seeing the sun. It seems that the West has become clean by exporting smog to the east!
What next? Pollution clean-up measures and programmes are being studied or are underway. Energy production, transportation and industrial waste are seen as critical factors, and there is an immediacy about all this that may well see new technologies and solutions emerge as a result.
Have I ever seen anything like this before? Actually, as I think back, I have! It was the creation of Silicon Valley in California. It also started with all the critical infrastructures and went at breakneck speed. And it too changed everything - not just in the US, it had a profound effect on the planet. I cannot but think that China is about to do the same.
See some of my photos...
Modern road infrastructure
A very big city
The old world
Old meets new
Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.