Many governments and businesses are trying to cope with the surging trend of urbanization in a world where we have to do more with less — as in space, water, energy and, arguably, even food. India, for example, launched a “smart cities” initiative to create a modern infrastructure for its rapidly evolving society — one that for millennia was largely rural, but now has seen its citizens flock to what are some of the world’s largest cities.
But this quest to redefine urbanization, and to build and redesign these smart cities, may already be over. If you take this term literally, it is pretty clear that the world’s balance of power, money and talent has already tipped in favor of a few dozen “megacities” that are home to the world’s largest companies, bustling technology hubs, universities and what authors including Richard Florida have called the “creative class.”
Many writers who have researched these demographic trends are vividly discussing what this means to the global economy and national politics. But whether the “smartest” or wealthiest people really do run the world from these megacities or not, the sheer size of these metropolises presents plenty of opportunities and challenges on the environmental and sustainable-development fronts.
One author who has touted the influence of megacities is Parag Khanna. In his book, "Connectivity," he argues that 21st-century competition -- and even conflict -- will not necessarily be over borders, but over what he says is connectivity, as in networks ranging from energy pipelines to broadband cables.
Khanna certainly has a point. Take a look here in the U.S. during this presidential election. Sure, Iowa and New Hampshire will cling to their outdated “first in the nation” stature, but the real action is going on as the minions of Clinton, Cruz and, soon, Trump are chasing and raising money in the Boston-New York-D.C. corridor or out west in the Bay Area or Southern California — after all, these areas combine for over a third of U.S. GDP. Many of the country’s largest businesses are in those regions, or are centered in that four-hour drive between Dallas and Houston or within the greater Chicago area.
Similar trends are ongoing worldwide. The greater Buenos Aires area holds a third of Argentina’s GDP — and similar ratios are found in the relationship between Sao Paulo and Brazil, Istanbul and Turkey, and Jakarta and Indonesia. Khanna’s analysis suggests as many as 40 of these megacities will dominate the global economy by 2025, operating almost as a political and economic silo from their home country, even if they happen to be national capitals.
And their influence is not necessarily limited to an artificial border. Take Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which together have arguably become the economic and even political capital of the Middle East and Northern Africa — despite low oil prices, they have become active investors throughout the greater region, helping to build infrastructure and increase energy access in nations such as Morocco, Egypt and Jordan. Singapore, arguably, has become the economic focal point of Southeast Asia.
Other organizations, such as the consultancy McKinsey, have also poured over data and conducted research to arrive at similar conclusions. Over the next decade, McKinsey also suggests the globe’s economic power will be concentrated in fewer cities, with their overall location shifting farther south and east.
But the big question that needs to be answered is: What will be done about the quality of life and affordability for the millions living in these cities? Khanna is confident that this interconnectivity can lead to a prosperous and peaceful society. But underneath the veneer of these macroeconomic trends, what is going on at the most local level also deserves attention.
After all, not everyone in these megacities is a techie in a hoodie or a trust-fund baby with copious amounts of money to play with. These areas will still have to rely on the grunts who keep the trains moving, offices organized and kids focused at school. People in these current and future megacities will also need to be fed and watered, which is why San Francisco and Los Angeles can never be disconnected from the likes of Fresno and Redding; Mumbai and Bangalore will also long have to maintain reciprocal ties with Kerala and Maharashtra. Such questions will need answers far more complex than urban farming or moving the masses into retrofitted shipping containers. If these cities can not be a viable home for everyone needed to keep a megacity and its economy humming, their long-term stature will not be sustainable.
That hardly means second- or third-tier cities will not be integral to the local economy — and in fact, they will maintain their political and cultural autonomy as described by the likes of Khanna and McKinsey, even cities like Chicago, Delhi and Beijing that are not considered current or future megacities. Smaller Midwestern cities, such as Milwaukee, Cleveland, Columbus and even Detroit, still hold plenty of potential for young graduates, tech entrepreneurs and the creative types who crave that urban environment without the exorbitant monthly price tag. European cities that fall under the radar, such as Wroclaw, Poland, and Trieste, Italy, offer opportunities to those who seek the chance to work in industries dominant in London or Singapore but want the city experience without the hordes of crowds.
So, while these megacities have already proven that they are the big kids on the global block, it is up to local municipal and business leaders to take the steps necessary to make sure they work for everyone. Otherwise, their long-term prospects are bleak.
Image credit: Leon Kaye
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.