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Patrik Li: Come over to China

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Patrik Li of the China-Britain Business Council (CBBC) delves into the opportunities which exist for British practices in China

What do you do at the CBBC?
I joined CBBC in April. My focus is quite broad, covering infrastructure, the built environment and energy. The Chinese infrastructure sector mostly involves urban renewal, masterplanning and developing low-carbon cities.

What kinds of opportunities for work are there in China for UK architects?
Right now there is a big regeneration drive in China because a lot of the cities were built in the 60s and 70s. China does not have the regeneration expertise required, so that is one area where foreign architects can make a big impact, along with anything to do with green urbanism.

How do you find work in China?
Large firms, such as Arup and Atkins, have built up a reputation here over a long time, so local architects will bring projects to them. Smaller companies, such as Buro Happold or Make Architects, would need to approach the second-tier cities and talk to local design institutes or take part in local competitions, which is quite a long process.

Can new UK firms still break into China?
In theory yes, but practically speaking China’s architects haven’t been stuck in the stone ages. They have started to move up the value chain, so it’s becoming more and more difficult for UK architects to find a niche to work in.

What does it take to succeed?
It’s always possible for new companies with new ideas to break into a new market, but if you are a traditional run-of-the-mill firm, you will find it hard in China. Even with good-quality projects in your portfolio, clients will still expect you to already have a profile over here. I’m not saying it’s impossible but it’s definitely getting more difficult.

How important are competitions?
They don’t play a very big role in procurement, but they are an important way to build a profile with local authorities. In China when a contest is launched the winner is usually already known. UK companies are therefore often reluctant to participate, and so miss out on the opportunity to raise their profile. Chinese companies, in contrast, take a long-term view and participate.

How do you find design competitions?
Design competitions are a big part of any developer or local authority’s plan to develop land. A lot are invitation only and some are very local, so you need to have eyes and ears on the ground to hear about them.

Foreign companies have to work with local design institutes, and having good contacts there can help you find design contests.

Any other advice?
Designers should take any opportunity to come over here. You’ll get a feel for what is happening and how the design market is evolving.

  • Patrik Li, is business adviser for energy, infrastructure and environment at the China-Britain Business Council (CBBC), Beijing
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