As recently as 20 years ago, Shanghai’s Pudong district on the east bank of the Huangpu River was largely undeveloped farms and swampland. Today, it’s home to more than 5 million people, the most recognizable skyscrapers on the Shanghai skyline, and the building blocks of a nascent digital startup scene. A recent report by the Shanghai Promotion Center of Mobile Internet Industry ranks Shanghai second, behind Beijing, in China’s digital economy investments, and Pudong as the city’s most active area.
Pudong is less a neighborhood than a region; its population is larger than that of any American city except New York. The part of Pudong that sits directly across the Huangpu from Shanghai’s historic downtown is now the city’s financial district. A 20-minute cab ride or 40-minute subway trip south brings visitors to another specialized enclave: a virtual city-within-a-city called Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park (also known as Zhangjiang Innopark).
The Innopark, like Pudong as a whole, has grown up along with China’s high-tech industry. It was founded in 1992 as a special economic zone to attract international investment, and it retains that designation. More than 140 of its approximately 3,600 tenants are foreign, and while Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park Development Co. Ltd., the private company that operates the park, says 80% of the tenants are small businesses, all have outgrown the startup stage. The remaining 20% include global technology giants, such as SAP, Tata Consultancy Services, Intel, Infosys, and Sony.
At roughly 10 square miles, the Innopark is larger than many small towns elsewhere in the world. In addition to office buildings, research labs, and light manufacturing facilities for science and technology companies, it contains a conference center, seven hotels, a supermarket, a bank, a fitness center, and eight apartment complexes. The surrounding area is a vibrant inner suburb, with restaurants and bars mashed up against apartment buildings and a street food market that pops up daily by the entrance of the Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park subway station on Zuchongzhi Road.
In many ways, the Innopark is like a college campus, a resemblance that will become stronger when ShanghaiTech University, a joint venture of the Shanghai municipal government and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, opens its main location in the middle of the Innopark later this year. In 2013, the research university offered its first classes across the river, in downtown Shanghai. When it finishes moving into its new facilities, it will be able to support 4,000 graduate students and 2,000 undergrads—and provide fresh ideas, collaborative opportunities, and new employees to the surrounding companies.
Shanghai has yet to birth a global digital economy phenomenon like WeChat, the messaging app developed in Guangzhou that now has more than 600 million monthly users. In fact, AngelList, the influential startup investing platform that links companies with funders, lists only 323 tech startups in all of Shanghai. Yet with so much brainpower and financial acumen in one spot, signs of an incipient startup culture are bubbling up around the city. One example is Techyizu, a volunteer-run organization that hosts regular events all over Shanghai for the city’s startup and tech community. Another is People Squared, a co-working space in Old Shanghai. And then there’s Chinaccelerator, the only startup accelerator program in China, which moved its offices from Dalian to Shanghai in 2014. Chinaccelerator has made seed investments in 67 companies to date, including Seeder, a company connecting real estate developers with green energy vendors; Wityu.fm, a platform for crowd-curated music playlists; and Aylien, which uses artificial intelligence to analyze text and images.
When one of them grows large enough to need new office space, there will be room in Pudong.
Where to eat:
Jade on 36 Sophisticated French food with a 36th-floor view from a skyscraper
Naaman High-end sushi
The MEAT One of Shanghai’s best steakhouses
Yong Yi Ting High-end traditional Shanghainese cuisine by rising star chef Tony Lu
Where to stay:
Near Zhangjiang Innopark Jumeirah Himalayas Hotel
Near the Pudong waterfront:
Grand Kempinski Hotel
Four Seasons Shanghai Pudong