The gala opening of the Shanghai Expo has focused the world's attention on this vibrant city that - or so we are told - is "forging the future". Whether or not we accept that statement, let no one doubt Shanghai's vibrancy. As a native New Yorker, I can truthfully say that Shanghai is the most interesting city that I have ever lived in, and that's a huge admission for someone born and raised in "the big Apple."
Yet why wouldn't a city of 20 million be "vibrant"? Isn't that an attribute of size? Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City and Bombay could all be described as "vibrant." What is more telling is the attribution that one commonly sees ascribed to Shanghai as a city "forging the future." You never hear anyone speak of Rio, Bombay or Mexico City as forging the future, unless it is in a dark science fiction novel with a future gone bad.
Yet Shanghai has always had a sense of 'future promise' about it - as befits any host of a great World Fair, or Exposition. The future was certainly a key characteristic in 1851, when London hosted the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations at Crystal Palace, and it was equally true of Chicago in both 1893 and 1933. The same could be said of Paris in 1925 and of New York in 1939 and 1964. In fact, visitors to the 1939 Worlds' Fair in New York were given buttons which exclaimed, "I have seen the Future."
The question that I have, however, is should such buttons be also given out at the Shanghai expo - and if so, just how is Shanghai actually going about "forging the future"?
If we look at New York city in the mid-twentieth century, at the time of both of its World Fairs, it was a city of immense possibilities. Not only was the world's economy centered in its banks, but the emerging electronic entertainment media (radio & television), and advertising industries, that would change everyone's lives, were housed there as well. In addition, the United Nations was about to settle there as its home, while the local jazz scene was influencing the music of the world.
People from everywhere were drawn to New York by its magnetism, creating a polyglot street culture that would add color on top of a foundation of earlier successive waves of immigrants, creating a true "world city." Given this dynamism, it was not surprising that so much of America's creative power in the second-half of the twentieth century emanated from New York.
What about Shanghai? Will we be able to say the same thing fifty years from now about the Shanghai expo? About seeing the future? I'm not sure that we will.
While I have no doubt at all that Shanghai is China's "style-setter," I remain perplexed about the absence of big Shanghai brands in the industries that will shape the future. Baidu, Haier, Huawei, Lenovo, ZTE, even Geely, these are the brands that are shaping China's future yet none of these are from Shanghai.
In fact, while seven Chinese names make the 2010 Financial Times' Global Top 100 brands, none are from Shanghai. Moreover, if we review CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets' new "China's top 20 most valuable brands" (September 2009), the sole Shanghai representative is the Bank of Communications (at no. 6), hardly an electrifying trend-setter!
So where are the Shanghai brands? As China speeds forward into the global marketplace, Shanghai brands are not even in the race. Instead, it is places like Qingdao, Beijing, Shenzhen, and Shunde that are producing the standard-bearers for China's global commercial aspirations.
What about competitiveness? In 2009, the Boston Consulting Group identified "100 new global challengers", from the emerging economies of the world that "... either have attained global leadership positions or have demonstrated credible ambitions and abilities to achieve sizable global footprints." Of these 100 companies, 36 are Chinese but only 4 or 5 actually come from Shanghai. And all are in important, but decidedly old-economy industries like steel, shipping and construction.
It's the same story with innovation. BYD Auto, the first Chinese company to make the top 10 of Business Week's Top 50 Innovators, is from Shenzhen. None of the other Chinese companies in the top 50 are from Shanghai either.
How can this be? How can China's most dynamic city not be at the forefront its economic and commercial revolution? While my love for Shanghai remains undimmed by this reflection, I am troubled by the near-absence of Shanghai companies on any list that would reflect an active role in forging the future.
So I will visit the Shanghai Expo this year, just as I visited the 1964 New York World's Fair, and I will look for signs to disprove this evidence. My hope is that what I will find there is an active authorship of what is to come, rather than a voyeur's view of what others might be doing.
But while I have no doubt that the Shanghainese are building a "world city," the mechanism by which this will play a role in creating a future for us all remains a mystery to me.