Agile governance to improve mega city efficiency

BY HU GUIREN and WANG NING | 05-25-2023
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Traffic moves slowly on the Beijing-Tibet expressway in Beijing on May 3, the last day of the Labor Day holiday. Photo: CFP

As a realistic spatial field with a high concentration of multiple factors, mega cities serve as an important driving force and a new growth pole in China’s high-quality socioeconomic development. In recent years, the sharp rise in natural disasters, accidents, public health crises, and challenges to social security have had a rather serious impact on the operation of mega cities, highlighting their uncertainty and vulnerability. The future of mega cities thus has become increasingly urgent in academic discussions and relevant governmental departments.

As stated in the new urbanization implementation plan, during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-25) submitted by the National Development and Reform Commission, at present, China’s expansion of super large cities is too fast and too intense. We must establish scientific boundaries for a city’s scale and development intensity, and reasonably control population density to support the healthy development of super-large cities and cure “big city diseases.”

Again, the 20th CPC National Congress report stressed that we need to “improve urban planning, construction, and governance and move faster to change the development models of super-large and mega cities.”

Chinese mega cities are at a critical stage in their development and construction, as they transition from spatial expansion to improving in quality and efficiency. The traditional governance model, based on manual measurements and the simple application of technology, is likely to cause alienation among governing powers or fall into the technocracy trap, since the internal requirements for mega city evolution cannot be effectively matched. To say the least, the traditional model directly hinders progress towards mega city governance efficiency. Therefore, we need to reorganize agile governance by enhancing quick perceptions, flexible responses, and continuous coordination to systematically improve the scientific level of mega city management. Social democracy and individual rights can be developed by redesigning three aspects: value concepts, governance systems, and strategic tools. 

People-centered approach

The agile governance method originated in the software engineering field in the 1990s. In 2018, the World Economic Forum formally endorsed the concept of “agile governance.” This style of governance is dynamic. Adapting on a needs basis, it places people at the heart of decision making and it is inclusive, involving others directly in policy design. Against the strategic backdrop of further promoting “new” urbanization, first, updating the governance performance of mega cities with agile thinking will undoubtedly strengthen its people-centered focus.

Both the traditional governance model, based on administering bureaucratic systems, and the digital governance model, built on algorithms and logic, tend to ignore people’s individual rights. This adds to the risk that mega cities might turn into a “panopticon” as described by French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault. 

In such a space, people’s activities are always visible and recorded, and each person internalizes their own discipline mechanism with the knowledge that they are being observed. However, controlling the public is not the goal of mega city governance, rather, the goal is public participation. This requires agile governance to empower people by upholding the values of social justice, democracy, and equality.

Urbanization is necessary on the path toward modernization. Since the 18th CPC National Congress, the urbanization rate of permanent residents has risen from 53.1% in 2012 to 65.2% at the end of 2022, rising 12.1 percentage points, indicating that China’s urbanization initiative has entered the “second half” of its plan. Accordingly, mega city development and construction needs to shift from rapid expansion to intensive and compact growth. Leading to profound and complex transformation in Chinese society, the demands of people in mega cities are increasingly personalized, diversified, and quality oriented. With such diverse needs, individuals at different levels may fall prey to the uniform governance of mega cities. Therefore, it is necessary to follow the baseline of “prioritizing at-risk communities first,” to quickly identify social problems through agile governance, and fully estimate and respond to differentiated demands of different groups.

The core of mega city planning, construction, and governance is people. To transform mega cities’ development model, we must truly respect the “voice of the people.” First, governance of mega cities driven by agile thinking brings the public into the policy process as much as possible, and actively creates an inviting atmosphere for public participation. Second, due to the absence of regular institutionalized channels, most people are only willing to voice their demands when their immediate interests are involved, which is typical of “passive participation.” Therefore, the agile governance of mega cities must also include awakening people’s subjective consciousness, mobilizing their enthusiasm and initiative in action, and encouraging people to participate in the governance process.

Balanced governing mechanism

Rational and standardized agile governance not only provides a clear roadmap for the transformation and development of mega cities, but also helps to strengthen the drive for innovation and fully integrate and adjust institutional construction. We can apply agile governance of mega cities from multiple dimensions, such as a focus on goals, structures, or power.

With drastic changes to the external environment, and profound adjustments to the pattern of interests, bureaucratic organizations must simultaneously deal with multiple value conflicts, such as: public order and social vitality; short-term benefits and long-term development; and exercising power and the protection of rights. Different from a “zero-sum” governance model, the “win-win approach” advocated by agile governance is more suitable for the current practical needs of mega cities. In fact, in an ideal state, agile governance strongly supports seeking a dynamic balance between the demands of multiple subjects and comprehensively considering influence factors from different perspectives, to promote institutional reform in mega city governance.

As a new concept, agile governance put flexibility, responsiveness, and adaptability at the core of its values. Agile governance alleviates internal structural barriers in the bureaucratic system through technological empowerment. However, the governance of mega cities — based on agile thinking — still faces many challenges, among which the biggest obstacle lies in conflicts between “rigid commands” and “hierarchical control” of the bureaucratic organizational structure which are incompatible with agile principles. Therefore, it is necessary to establish and improve the agile culture’s integration mechanism and the bureaucratic system’s rational rules, to balance flexibility and stability, and jointly solve problems in the transformation and development of mega cities.

Finally, we need to build a two-way connection between political bodies and social powers. In the initial stage of mega city governance, agile governance is often inseparable from new resource inputs, dynamic support provided by administrative powers, and a restructured bureaucratic system. However, if it relies too heavily on established institutions or political powers, agile governance might fall into the “development trap.” Therefore, on the basis of accurately understanding the core values of agile governance, efforts should be made to cultivate social constructive forces such as public groups. These social groups can strengthen institutionalized interactions between the government and society by reshaping the organizational environment, making it more open and inclusive, to provide long-term and stable conditions for the transformation and development of mega cities.

Flexible application of strategies

A mega city is a modern product constructed by reason and with rules, making it vulnerable to all kinds of potential uncertainties and risks. Some deep-seated problems cannot be quickly solved by a single policy tool, but through constant optimization, solutions can be found which coordinate and balance a range of policy tools.

First, the intensity of policy implementation should be adjusted, to improve the effectiveness of mega city governance tools. It is impossible to deal with problems in the transformation and development of mega cities using a one-size-fits-all approach, because the problems usually involve complex forms of frequent interactions with multi-dimensional elements. Agile governance aims to master the governance rhythm of mega cities as much as possible, by using gentle and non-coercive strategic tools. With timely intervention and attentive regulation, the leveraging effect of “four ounces moving 1,000 pounds” can be achieved despite limited resources, avoiding hidden risks while ensuring vitality in urban development.

Second, adaptive technology needs to speed up to compensate for shortcomings in mega-city governance. Agile governance does not simply mean a government adopts emerging technologies. For example, when the Australian government used artificial intelligence to measure public welfare, the lack of transparency in the decision-making process directly reduced public trust and satisfaction. Thus, agile governance in mega cities is an extension of the digital technology exploration process. It is a comprehensive investigation of social systems, organizational structures, and public demand. Only by the mutual adaptation of technical tools and social systems — such as: organizations, systems, and cultures — can the functional effectiveness of agile governance be better enhanced in mega cities.

Third, “tool alienation” needs to be avoided to reduce derivative risks in mega city governance. The instrumental and rational logic of digital technology not only helps to achieve set goals and tasks, but also plays an important role in improving the governance performance of mega cities. However, digital technology itself inevitably is at fault, in terms of innovation continuity and information security. Without proper regulation, it is likely to be used incorrectly as a tool by those in power to seek their own interests. Therefore, the agile governance of mega cities must clearly identify the inherent limits of digital technology and avoid a series of risks derived from the unregulated use of technology — at all costs.

At present, the transformation development of Chinese super cities provides a good opportunity for innovation in agile governance. However, a single action or mechanism setting cannot meet the internal requirements which agile governance needs to take effect. On the basis of integrating effective value, institutions, and tool rationality, it is necessary to focus on the  people-centered new urbanization strategy, and explore the development model and path of Chinese modernization by fully realizing agile governance in mega cities.

Hu Guiren is from the School of Government at East China University of Political Science and Law; Wang Ning is an associate professor from the School of Social and Public Management at East China University of Science and Technology.

Edited by YANG XUE