Northern Lights: Our future needs Chinese as well as British characteristics to thrive

Members of the Chinese delegation, who visited the Golbal Manufacturing Festival
Members of the Chinese delegation, who visited the Golbal Manufacturing Festival

In the shadow of St Mary’s Church and a stone’s throw from Bramall Lane, a new era is developing. The longstanding dream of local businessman Jerry Cheung, the New Era Development will be a home to Chinese students and business start ups.

Jerry sees a future in which people from the Steel City build connections with talented young people and entrepreneurs from Beijing and Shanghai. Jerry has teamed up with the Chamber of Commerce’s Richard Wright as well as my own university, the city council and Sheffield Hallam to make a new Chinese Business Incubator. We sign the papers this week.

It’s easy of course to think of China in terms of stereotypes. Fashionable urban teenagers with their phones and WeChat contrast in our minds with images of dragons

Sheffield is right to think about how it can work with China – the greatest emerging power in the world, home to over 1.3 billion people. It isn’t just the Chinese students who bring so much to our local economy and who volunteer in large numbers to support local schools, festivals and charities. It is that our societies have interests and problems in common, and if we work together to find solutions, everyone benefits.

It’s easy of course to think of China in terms of stereotypes. Fashionable urban teenagers with their phones and WeChat contrast in our minds with images of dragons, rice fields, Confucius and Jackie Chan. It is the same in reverse. If you watch TV in China, you could be forgiven for thinking that all Brits are extras in either Downton Abbey or Sherlock! But life isn’t like that in either country and Sheffield has something particular to offer to China.

China is a country struggling to build a modern economy and society for the good of its people. We’ve been there. Sheffield knows what it is to face the challenge of improving industry and healthcare to make a difference to the lives of local people. There are plenty of Steel Cities in China, and many of them are facing significant job losses as old manufacturing gives way to losses to cheaper economies. This city has had its own smoggy skies and understands the sacrifices of working people who want something better for their children.

Like us, China is serious about new technologies and the use of data. Could Sheffield possibly have a role to play? The Chinese think so, which is why this week the University of Sheffield is hosting a number of visitors from Beijing. We will be signing an agreement with its leading Tsignhua University to work together on Artificial Intelligence in everything from manufacturing to health. Tsinghua has the best computer science department in Asia. If we solve problems together, we could do wonderful things for our countries.

There will be business leaders with the delegation too, keen to learn. China has a deep respect for education and research, and it knows it needs to innovate if it is to support the growing prosperity of its people. The links we make with these hard-working people should create opportunities and jobs here and in China.

And perhaps most important of all, China has 1.3 billion people it must feed, although many have now migrated from the rural areas to cities. Who will help bring life to abandoned fields or help crops spring from the dusty brown fields I saw from the train window on my way north from Beijing? Again, we can help. Underneath the car park in front of the Arts Tower is one of the most advanced Plant Sciences labs in the world, modelling growing conditions which may be impacted by climate change.

We have one more special visitor this week – the Chief Scientist of Google AI and Machine Learning, Professor Fei Fei Li. This remarkable young woman arrived in the US as a 16 year old Chinese immigrant where she set up a laundry so her parents would have reliable work. Today she is shaping the future of AI in one of the most influential companies in the world, constantly concerned about how knowledge can be used for human goo.

Why would Fei Fei Li come to Sheffield? Because she knows we care about the same things. She wants to see how we are applying technologies to solve practical challenges and to help companies become more productive. She wants to meet students, apprentices.

Too often people think of the future of a city in very local terms. But the future of our city, country and world will not be best served by preserving boundaries. Our interests lie in finding common ground and working together to solve challenges. We will only be able to look after the children of Sheffield and Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley if we also care about the children of Shanghai and Shenzhen, Beijing and Nanjing. Our future needs Chinese as well as British characteristics.