Shanghai: A City of Two Tales

 I'm writing this en route home from Shanghai, where I've spent most of the past week touring, visiting, meeting, and experiencing this Asian megacity for the first time. The occasion was Expo 2010, the world's fair situated on both sides of the Huangpu River, which runs through the center of China's largest city.

I came to Shanghai primarily for the opening of an art installation, "The Nature of Cities," on cities and biodiversity, at the Expo's United Nations pavilion. The theme of the exhibition -- created and produced by Art Works for Change, the nonprofit group founded and headed by my wife, Randy Rosenberg -- reflected the theme of the Expo itself: "Better City -- Better Life."

That "better cities" theme pervaded the pavilions representing nearly 200 countries, plus dozens more organizations and corporations that are exhibiting here. And it aimed to signify Shanghai's emerging status in the 21st century as the "next great world city" -- at least by Shanghai's own reckoning. Shanghai, like most big cities in both developed and developing economies, is a study in contrasts: on the one hand, world-class shopping, fine dining, and some of the planet's most impressive buildings; on the other, choking pollution, gridlocked traffic, and a struggling underclass. A rich and tortured history; a promising but uncertain future.

For two days, amid some of the hottest temperatures Shanghai had seen in 50 years, we toured the Expo, at times standing in long lines. The story each national pavilion told was predictable: "We're a proud people with deep traditions and care for the land that is our home. We support progress and a clean environment. We have great hope for our children. Here are a few of the things we're good at. Come visit us! Come buy our stuff!"

But not the USA pavilion, which stood out among the others, less for its design than its content: Its primary purpose was to showcase the companies that sponsored the building, a roll call of American capitalism: Alcoa, Boeing, Caterpillar, Chevron, Citi, Corning, Dell, Dow, Dupont, Fedex, GE, Goodyear, Honeywell, Intel, KFC, Marriott, Microsoft, Pepsi, Pfizer, Pizza Hut, Procter & Gamble, Visa, Walmart, and more than a dozen others.

The message, as best I heard it: "We innovate to bring great ideas to the world! We build brands that the world wants! We create opportunity! Come visit us! Come buy our stuff!"

But it wasn't the country pavilions that most interested me. On my second day at the Expo, I made a beeline for the corporate pavilions, a smaller group of grandiose buildings across the river from the Expo's main crowds. It was here I found two competing tales of our energy and transportation future.

Up first: the General Motors Pavilion -- actually the SAIC-GM Pavilion, reflecting GM's partnership with the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation. The pavilion's theme: "Drive to 2030," an engaging and highly optimistic tale of where transportation can take us within the next two decades, with an emphasis on China's vehicular future. That future, says GM, is one

in which driving will be free from emissions, accidents, petroleum, and congestion. It is a future in which driving will also be more enjoyable and fashionable than ever before.

The keys to this Utopian vision are electrification and connectivity -- a technological mash-up of vehicles, energy, and information, where vehicles -- from traditional cars, buses, and trucks to a new generation of cool "personal urban mobility" vehicles called the EN-V (pronounced "envy") -- zip along at a decent clip, kept collision-free thanks to next-gen technologies GM is developing or integrating into vehicles -- or at least plans to. Oh, and the sky is always blue.