Joint ventures in the artificial intelligence, life sciences and automotive sectors are fuelling ever closer links between China and Scotland, a conference in Edinburgh heard on Wednesday.
Cooperation between Edinburgh and Shenzhen in pioneering machine learning techniques, diabetes research and electric vehicle fuel cells is driving economic value in high-end service and manufacturing economies, according to an economic growth forum hosted in the capital.
As the result of a deal struck five years ago a series of projects embarked on by both cities has helped students, universities, start-ups and even a multinational to work together on research and real-world products that are transforming the fortunes of both economies.
The officially termed ‘memorandum of understanding’ (MOU) was signed by the cities in 2013, and since then various cultural, business and academic exchanges have helped foster growth in both destinations.
They include a potentially revolutionary International Diabetes Centre in Shenzhen, a research laboratory for machine learning in Edinburgh and a cutting-edge scheme to develop the next generation of electric buses – with the help of Scottish engineering expertise in Falkirk.
In addition to that work, the conference heard there is a growing demand among Scottish students to learn Mandarin and a nascent ‘Talent Scheme’ has launched in Shenzhen to attract academics, both are which stimulating interest among homegrown researchers to work in the city; in just 38 years Shenzhen has grown from a sleepy fishing village with a population of 30,000 to a global Fortune 500 rated behemoth dubbed ‘China’s Silicon Valley’ and home to 20million people.
The event, at the Waldorf Astoria, The Caledonian Hotel, was attended by a high-ranking delegation from China, which included the Chinese Consul General in Edinburgh, Mr Pan Xinchun and Dr Ma Boyin, Deputy Secretary General of Shenzhen Municipal Government; in total, more than 100 people from all walks of civic, public and business life in both cities took part in the ‘Shenzhen Global Promotional Event’.
Dr Ma said Shenzhen is an exemplar of China’s reform programme and that its ‘opening up’ has been characteristic of a desire for the country to play a bigger part in world economic growth and stability. He said: “Shenzhen and Edinburgh have strenghthened their ties in trade and investment, high technologies, culture and arts through all sorts of events; we continue to deepen our cooperation with Edinburgh and I hope that for today’s event that people in Shenzhen and in Edinburgh will increase their understanding, share their successful experiences and achieve common development.”
Cllr Frank Ross, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, welcomed the foreign delegation and said that the “city to city collaboration” will continue to bring inward investment to both destinations.
He said: “From the Edinburgh Shenzhen memorandum of understanding in 2013 and my own first trip back in November 2014, I’m really impressed by the progress and achievements made by both cities since then. And I’m confident that with the expertise in the room here today we that we can continue to seek out opportunities to innovate and inspire each other.”
Cllr Ross cited the advancement of a joint project between the University of Edinburgh, the University of Shenzhen and the Shenzhen People’s Hospital, which is delivering a world-leading International Diabetes Centre (IDC) in Shenzhen, as one of many examples of partnership working between the cities, which also stand to benefit from a new direct air route opening between Edinburgh and Beijing in June.
The world-renowned Edinburgh School of Informatics – ranked as one of the top five computing science schools in the world – is also working closely with Huawei Technologies, the Chinese leader in mobile networking, the conference heard.
Prof. Jane Hillston, the School’s Director of Research, started by giving an overview of the work being undertaken by the Huawei-Informatics Joint Research Lab, and said that everyone in the room – whether they realised it not – were ‘almost certainly’ using switching network technology operated in the UK by Huawei.
She said that although machine learning was not a core part of the business for Huawei, the company had taken an interest in the possibilities of natural language processing as part of potential future applications for voice data stored on mobile devices being used in a more intelligent way. Prof. Hillston welcomed the academic freedom she and her team have been given as part of the relationship and said that her researchers had been able to go where their ‘curiosity’ had taken them and that Huawei had a great deal of ‘trust’ in them to do the job.
Finally, Mike Kerslake, Technical Manager for BYD – the Chinese automotive manufacturer – gave an insight into how the company, which has a turnover of £12bn – is working with Falkirk-based Scottish bus manufacturer Alexander Dennis on the next generation of ultra efficient storage electric buses. Mr Kerslake highlighted how BYD – which stands for ‘Build Your Dreams’ – had started off in the lithium battery industry but has “diversified hugely” and is now the forerunner in electric vehicles; he quipped that US tech billionaire Elon Musk, whose own company Tesla is spearheading high-tech battery storage technology, is playing ‘catch-up’ to BYD, whose investors include legendary US investor Warren Buffett.
BYD – which is headquartered in Shenzhen – is also working with Scottish power giant SSE on ways of assessing energy demand among its UK bus fleet. Currently, the company has just under 100 buses operating in London with plans for more as well as a new research and development centre located in the UK, at a location yet to be disclosed.
Consul General Xinchun said he hoped to see the BYD buses – which have had the personal endorsement of China’s President Xi – on the streets of Edinburgh in the not-too-distant future as further evidence of a shared agenda to enhance environmental protections in both cities.
The event was the latest in a series of meetings organised in the capital by the Shenzhen Creative Investment Group (SCIG), which has been working closely with Edinburgh City Council.