Time serves as vital urban governance resource

By HAN ZHIMING and LIU YUXI / 06-30-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A man consults the “Desk of Administrative Conundrums” at a government affairs service center at Handan City, Hebei Province, on Oct. 9, 2021. Photo: CFP

Space and time are not only natural and exogenous variables, but also contribute to continuous social creation. These are the key factors to understand political development, historical change, and social life. Social order is constructed in time and space, which is the container and tool to construct order. A city is a highly dense social space, where resources flow rapidly. With the development of cities, especially the advancement of modern information technology, the spatial composition and operation of cities is becoming increasingly complex, and the concept of time is in constant flux. Time is the basic parameter of urban management and operation, an important index to test the efficiency of social activities, and an essential tool of urban governance. It determines how urban governance is carried out, and affects the efficiency and quality of urban governance.

Significance of time
Since ancient times, the design and regulation of time have been an important part of national governance. For example, each new regime usually redesignated a new regnal year to cement political legitimacy, the almanac calendar was published every year to guide social production and life, postal systems were established to improve information transfer efficiency, and the use of bells and drums to tell time helped people arrange their daily life. Similarly, setting time to define the scale and meaning of urban life is also modern urban governance’s basic task.
Nowadays, the concept of time permeates all levels of national governance. When cities roll out their economic and social development strategies, time is an indispensable factor, as in three-year action plans, five-year plannings, a “one-hour commuting circle” between cities, “15-minute daily life circle” and other major plannings. With these, we have defined the future in an authoritative manner. By segmenting time, we label each period with specific tasks, to arrange and deploy urban activities based on such schedules. 
There are other definitions and settings of time. For example, there are requirements where the work safety authority, and relevant authorities responsible for work safety, report an accident level by level, and the time for reporting at each level should not exceed 2 hours. Also, the time for administrative approval should not exceed 5 working days, and the time for the completion of an epidemiological survey report should be 24 hours. In essence, we assign different values and meanings to time, and also define the nodes and rhythms of social activities as we do so. In particular, time becomes a convenient tool for coordinating different social entities and their activities.
As the old saying goes, time is money. Time management is essentially a contest between profit and morality, embedded in every facet of social life. For example, the “8-hour workday” is the result of a long-term historic struggle of workers who were forced to endure long hours on the factory floor. In recent years, the phenomenon of a “996 working schedule” has triggered heated public discussion. In this debate is a struggle over time as a resource, with questions such as what are reasonable working hours, who has the right to make decisions between enterprises and employees, and how to avoid labor shortages. Given that time is an internal parameter for social activities, it determines actors’ resource consumption and social benefits, so debates about time become an important conflict of interest. Correspondingly, how to redistribute time resources in line with the needs of economic and social development have become a key part of urban governance.
Natural time is even, but social time is not. The amount of time required by different social activities varies, as does time’s utility for different social groups. Therefore, it is necessary to develop differentiated time management schemes. The specific issues include: (1) Who should have their time resources prioritized, such as implementing a public transport priority development strategy to improve the efficiency of public transport and meet people’s travelling needs; (2) What should time resources be allocated to, such as establishing a consultative platform with diverse members to discuss issues of concern and promote consensus; (3) To coordinate time conflicts, such as the implementation of the odd-even vehicle license plate rules to reduce traffic jams, and create “24/7” government services to respond to people’s needs on non-working days.
All social activities take time and can be marked by a time scale. For example, many government branches have set time limits on the completion of business, striving to achieve “instant completion of business,” in an effort to reduce the amount of time people must spend in government offices and streamline procedures. In fact, all reform and innovation of urban governance underlines the significance and social effect of time resource redistribution. For example, based on modern information technology, local governments are encouraged to offer all-round, one-stop services and online approvals to reduce people’s commute times. Given the value of time, the allocation of time resources will inevitably bring about new effects and give rise to different profit distribution patterns.
Fast pace
Life is increasing its pace in modern society. With the development and application of information technology, cities run faster and have become an important engine for social acceleration, driving acceleration of all areas in society, as shown by the popularity of industries such as fast food, express delivery, instant delivery, and short videos. Thus, a “hyper-speed” modern urban culture is formed. As urban resource elements flow more frequently and interact more closely, people become more sensitive to time and allow less time per social activity. A typical example of fast-paced urban governance is cutting or compressing unnecessary intermediate steps and promoting “one-stop” government services to increase public service turnover and enhance people’s experience in the process.
The development of cities and urban governance are mutually compatible. The accelerated pace of city life calls for accelerated urban governance. If urban governance cannot keep up, the city will risk falling into chaos. The operation of a megacity may face risks at any time, particularly if there is no efficient emergency management mechanism, sometimes a small loophole may evolve into a major crisis or disaster. That said, urban governance must reform and innovate to streamline procedures and develop digital services. Many cities in China have now established “overtime approval” systems where if no new documents can be added for certain applications, the application is approved, to ensure officials meet approval time limits and to prevent delays.
Here, it must be pointed out that sci-tech, especially information technology, is an important tool for accelerating urban governance. First, it reduces the cost of information transactions, improves the efficiency of information transmission, and promotes the flow of governance elements, and it is also conducive to the optimal allocation of governance resources. Second, information technology can record urban operations and their details, eliminate grey zones in urban governance, and strengthen the accuracy of urban governance. Finally, information technology has a strong penetrating force that can break through boundaries and barriers between diverse social subjects and share information, which is convenient for mutual cooperation across sectors. The new generation of information technology is expected to continue to speed up urban governance and have a more profound impact on time strategies.
Future strategies
Time has always been a scarce resource. As renowned Chinese writer Lu Xun once said, “Time is like the water in a sponge; as long as you are willing to squeeze it, it always will come out.” The same goes for urban time. If we compress and squeeze, there will be more disposable time or surplus time through restructuring and design, thus providing more active resources for urban development.
A typical governance strategy involves promoting city-industry integrated planning and development to shorten commuting distances and save commuting time. Also, historical and cultural memorial sites can be built to better protect urban history and culture, and open up the past, present, and future of the city. Meanwhile, a nightlife economy and a holiday economy can be developed to provide more leisure time to meet the people’s personalized life needs. These urban governance strategies are meant to save time, “squeeze out” the precious remaining time, and provide the possibility for extended and deeper social activities.
As an important metaphor for time, “remaining time” shows elasticity and irregularity. Since time is the basic scale for social activities, various reform and innovation programs inevitably need to adjust their thresholds, standards, and time intensity, to form a new combination of social activities and time parameters. There are two ways to accomplish this: One is to reduce wastes of time by streamlining procedures; The other is to create a “cooling-off period” to encourage prudent choices and rational actions. “Remaining time” is sometimes virtual, providing social expectations and imagination. Sometimes it is real, liberating social subjects.
In the urban acceleration trend, speed has become the only criterion for evaluating urban activities, bringing about the “tyranny” of speed and sidelining everything slow. However, in the context of acceleration, “deceleration” is also an important option for urban governance. Many cities are actively building a “slow walking space” to make people slow down and pursue a more rational and leisurely lifestyle. This is undoubtedly an important element of a modern city’s humanistic spirit. Some peaceful and flexible management strategies, such as consultation, residents’ chambers, and multi-party consultation platforms, seem to invest in time, prolong the length of time for problem solving, but in fact they search for more rational, mild, tolerant, and acceptable solutions, contributing to broader participation, raising more multidimensional views, and reducing wider conflicts and frictions.
In summary, a city is a highly complex social system, and the interaction of various resource elements form different frequencies and rhythms. Therefore, arranging time well through the “addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division” of time, to promote the differentiation and combination of urban elements, adjust the speed and rhythm of urban governance, and optimize urban operation and management, is an important task for urban governance.
Through a better understanding of time, urban governance can not only actively and flexibly pursue faster speeds and higher efficiency, but also step on the brake of urban acceleration to slow down the speed of many activities and bring more humanity into urban life. It is precisely through the precise control of the time that urban governance meets the needs of a more diverse group of people, constructs a highly open and inclusive ecology, and breeds the urban spirit of relaxation and movement.
Han Zhiming (professor) and Liu Yuxi are from the School of International and Public Affairs at Shanghai Jiaotong University. 
Edited by YANG XUE