Our series exploring startup scenes: this month, Ningbo, China
a city as mighty as Ningbo would rule supreme. But this is China, so the economic powerhouse of the southern Yangtze River Delta has gotten used to living in the shadow of its neighbour across Hangzhou Bay: Shanghai.
It wasn’t always like this. Back when Shanghai was a few fishing huts on the Huangpu River, Ningbo was one of China’s great trading centres. Its export industry dates back to the seventh century. During the Song dynasty (960-1279), Arab traders and merchants roamed the port area of this multicultural coastal city, followed by the Portuguese in the 16th century.
Ningbo’s much coveted deep-water port is today one of the busiest in the world. (Top spot goes to – you guessed it – Shanghai.) Manufacturing of export goods nudged Ningbo’s GDP past RMB 500 billion in the first half of 2018 – that’s about the same as a country like Nepal or Slovenia. Domestically, Ningbo looks inland to its mammoth consumer market, one of China’s densest and most urbanised regions with hundreds of million people living just a couple hours’ drive away. It’s this press of people on Ningbo’s doorstep that is fuelling technology and innovation.
Investment in the tech sector is growing at pace, particularly in the areas of AI, robotics and new energy vehicles. A 2018 government plan has set out to establish five new R&D centres with 1,000 high- calibre researchers in place in Ningbo by 2022. Joint research projects have helped Ningbo step out of Shanghai’s shadow and gain stature on the world stage. The University of Nottingham Ningbo was the first Sinoforeign university to open in China. There you can study for an undergraduate degree in computer science with artificial intelligence; its Centre for Sustainable Energy Technologies (CSET), China’s first zero- carbon building, is a key research centre. Recently, plans have been put in place between the city of Ningbo and the UK’s University of Cambridge to build a research institute studying intelligent equipment manufacturing.