Jinrui Liu: On Being a Global Citizen and Greening Urban Infrastructure

February 21, 2023

By Thuy Dinh

Washington, D.C. based Jinrui Liu is a 26-year-old research analyst and self-proclaimed global citizen who is passionate about the value of infrastructure development in the context of big city life. In this interview, Jinrui shares his love of languages, art, and history — and how sustainable urban infrastructure contributes to economic growth, decarbonizes cities, and improves the quality of everyday life.

Can you tell us about yourself? What inspired you to follow the current career path?

I am from Jinan, China, a city of 9 million people, where I experienced first-hand the kinds of urban challenges that improved infrastructure can solve. I have this very vivid memory of visiting my grandfather’s house when I was a kid, and we had to use a hand pump to collect water from the deep well. Fortunately, things have changed rapidly in the past few decades. We now have good urban infrastructure systems and China overall has developed significantly. I’m a beneficiary of this improved infrastructure and increased economic opportunity. That’s the reason I wanted to pursue a career in international development.

In addition to speaking several Chinese dialects and English, you’re fluent in Arabic. What drew you to study Arabic?

One of my goals in life is to better understand the world. Growing up in China, I was always fascinated by the culture, history, and religious traditions of the Arab world, but I didn’t know much about it. That was why I decided to study Arabic during bachelor’s at Beijing Foreign Studies University. In 2017, I had the opportunity to do a six-month exchange program at Cairo University in Egypt, where I really improved my Arabic.

Jinrui Liu, in front of the Great Sphinx of Giza (2017).
In front of the Great Sphinx of Giza (2017).

Cairo is a beautiful and historic city, but you could immediately tell that the city had some infrastructure issues. When I lived on campus, we often had blackouts due to power shortages. And traffic totally clogged the streets. That was when I realized there’s still so much more to be done in the rest of the world when it comes to sustainable infrastructure.

What brought you to IFC?

While I enjoyed learning new languages, I knew it wasn’t enough to make a difference. You can speak the language, and you can understand what the local communities are facing, but you cannot help them substantially. To equip myself with broader skill sets, I pursued a master’s in public policy at the University of Oxford and the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) program. I wanted to use both policymaking and investment skills to help address the challenges.

After graduation, I worked on policy advisory and impact assessment for sustainable infrastructure covering Central Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. To expand my exposure and gain more global experience, I joined IFC in November 2021. My current team works on municipal and environmental infrastructure in emerging markets around the world — a perfect fit for a global citizen like me!

Your team covers several important sectors within IFC Infrastructure department: cities, waste, water, district energy. What are the challenges and opportunities in the urban infrastructure space?

More than 50 percent of the world’s population live in cities and over 80 percent of global GDP is generated by cities. But cities also consume more than 75 percent of the world’s natural resources and account for over 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. So, here’s the challenge: how do we enable cities to capitalize on their potential as engines of sustainable, inclusive economic growth while decarbonizing and reducing their climate impacts?

The opportunities lie in enhanced urban infrastructure: systems to improve water and sanitation, waste management, urban transport, heating and cooling, among others. For example, IFC client Averda International is bringing innovative, integrated waste management solutions to municipalities in Oman, Morocco, and South Africa. In addition to the clear public health benefits, these solutions support circular approaches that extract value from waste and deliver significant climate benefits.

These systems are, however, quite expensive. Subnational governments often struggle to close the infrastructure gaps because there are huge investment needs, especially in emerging markets. In addition to financing, cities often need technical guidance that will enable the strategic development of modern infrastructure.

So, how is IFC helping to address these issues?

Our urban infrastructure team works in three areas — municipal finance, water, and waste management. IFC’s distinct model in the sustainable urban infrastructure space is that we combine investment products and advisory services to address both financing and capacity gaps. Our demand-driven platforms — Cities Initiative, Utilities for Climate (U4C), and Circularity Plus directly respond to the needs and priorities of public and private sector partners. For instance, we’ve established a close partnership with the city of Izmir in Tϋrkiye to fund its urban transport and water and wastewater systems. Our recent engagement with IZSU — the city’s public water utility and a founding member of the U4C initiative — was IFC’s first sustainability-linked infrastructure financing and will benefit thousands of citizens. I’m hoping to visit Izmir one day to see up close the positive impact of our decade-long collaboration with this beautiful city.

IFC Infrastructure Team Retreat (2022).
IFC Infrastructure Team Retreat (2022).

Can you tell us more about the role of an IFC research analyst?

My role is to provide strategic and cross-cutting support for infrastructure projects and business development. My job also allows me to contribute to strategic and innovative business areas.

For example, I am part of the team that spearheaded IFC's initial investments in district cooling, which is a clean, cost-effective, and scalable way to deliver cooling to multiple buildings. With temperatures rising, cities often feel the heat even more intensely — creating what’s known as heat islands — given the scale of their built environment and lack of green space. In particular, emerging market cities in warm climates really need efficient, effective, and sustainable cooling solutions. One of these groundbreaking projects was our $25 million equity investment in a joint venture with Tabreed, one of the world's largest publicly listed district cooling utilities, to expand this innovative solution across Asia. We are now looking at district cooling opportunities in other countries. I am really proud that through my work, I am helping IFC become a market leader in such important areas and solve many infrastructure challenges on the ground.

As a member of the municipal finance team, I also research subnational commercial borrowings, which can help subnational governments in emerging markets close financing gaps. IFC assists with mobilizing such financing for priority projects, connecting cities with capital markets, and helping diversify their investor base. For instance, IFC is partnering with the Lagos State Government to support the development of two bus corridors, which will increase access to public transportation and reduce vehicle emissions in the city. Other projects I’ve worked on include IFC’s Smart City Toolkit, which aims to elevate our efforts in the smart cities space and add more value to our clients and partners.

Representing IFC at the Smart City Expo in Barcelona (2022).
Representing IFC at the Smart City Expo in Barcelona (2022).

My IFC job gives me exposure to so much of the great work IFC and our clients are doing. Instead of focusing on one project, I have the opportunity to make strategic contributions more holistically to many projects across sectors and regions. I also get to work with amazing colleagues who have global experience and in-depth expertise in various sectors. It’s very exciting!

It sounds like your days are incredibly busy. What do you do to unplug and relax?

At the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. (2021)
At the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. (2021).

I like reading history books. One of my recent favorites is “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan. Reading history is a reminder that so much of the human experience happened before, and that we should try to learn more from the past. I also love art and music. Being based in Washington D.C. is great because there are wonderful galleries, museums, and music venues.

Any specific artists or art movements you can share with us?

I’m fascinated by the pioneering artist Marcel Duchamp, who had immense influence on modern art and paved the way for conceptual art and the Dada movements. His artwork challenged conventions with wildly innovative ideas and subversive humor. My own motto is also inspired by him and his life — be satisfied with what you have, be honest with who you are, and be passionate about what you love.

Wow, words to live by… thank you, Jinrui.

Published in February 2023