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March 30, 2006

Biomedical downtowns

An intriguing story in next month’s Cluster magazine describes plans in China for the world’s first urban biomedical hub. Sascha Haselmayer, one of its advisors, writes that Fenglin Biomedical Centre will concentrate life science, medical care services, medical education, business incubation, and medical exhibitions, in the Xuhui district of Shanghai. Haselmayer says Fenglin is about “building a healthcare system that has to almost instantly provide for more than one billion currently unprotected people”. Fenglin can become a global biomedical hub, he says, that will “increase productivity, and speed up the process from scientific discovery to bedside product". Emerging trends such as lifestyle diseases, preventive medicine, and bio-informatics, have further stimulated interest from international partners. And there, for me, is where FMC is misconceived. It’s an urban development project, not a health service one. As I discovered in Korea a while back, biomedical clusters (here's a map of them) like Fenglin are popular with investors and multinationals. Large inflows of capital are attracted by tax breaks and what Haselmayer describes as “an inclusive yet visionary governance” that, in Fenglin's case, includes a Patenting Center to assist in interrnationalisation/localisation of patents. But the latest thinking on health favours the radical decentralisation of care - not its concentration, and not its technological intensification. A business model based on the privatisation of medical knowledge is also unlikely to benefit China’s population. Investors will probably get sick, too, when the wildly over-egged promises being made for biomedicine turn out to be chimeras.

Posted by John Thackara at March 30, 2006 02:31 PM


I enjoy the critical attention you have paid to my article, and clearly you raise some generic issues of concern. To clarify only a number of issues that appear to be mis-read from the article you review, i would like to point out that Fenglin Biomedical Centre is not seen as 'the' solution to the Chinese healthcare crisis, but instead one of the many components under development.
Fenglin Biomedical Centre is one of many such projects in China, and around the world. We alone have reviewed 21 of these, ranging from Berlin to Harvard and Kobe. The uniqueness of Fenglin has to be its integration into a fully operational urban environment. It is not an exercise in over-sized (and over-ambitious) masterplanning, but an urban evolution where already today you find much of the Biomedical Cluster at work.
And you are right, investors are strained to discern the hundreds of Biomedical Centres under development around the world. Yet, there are real successes (tangible and measurable) and often these draw on an intelligent governance structure. This is where a key challenge will lie in China and much of the rest of the world - to 'let things happen' - i.e. let those that make the Biomedical Cluster happen take control of some of the urban processes.
In Europe alone we have 150,000 Mayors, and each is considering how it can present itself in a globally competitive market-place. Often this leads to such 'over-egged' promises - as you call them - yet, few have the tools to develop realistic strategies for placing their cities into a future-oriented context.
Whilst not fully factual to the article in Cluster Magazine, your comments raise important issues that also we are concerned about. We have only just completed our second workshop with architecture and urbanism students from the Architectural Association in London and Tongji University in Shanghai to critically review what 'urbanisation' of innovation environments really means, in particularly in the Asian mega-city where rapid economic development creates new typologies and urban fabrics almost on a daily basis. Here is where the disciplinary boundaries of urbanism are challenged.

Posted by: Sascha Haselmayer at April 27, 2006 09:20 PM

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