Urbanization 2.0

CHICAGO – We are now in the final days of the industrial age. Just as the second generation of steam engines propelled the Industrial Revolution forward, so, too, are new technologies advancing today’s digital revolution. But as technology races ahead of us, it is difficult to anticipate what the future holds.

One thing we do know is that the future will be shaped by two key trends: digitization and urbanization. And the possibilities introduced by the former will likely help us overcome the problems associated with the latter.

When the Industrial Revolution was first gaining momentum at the beginning of the nineteenth century, only a small percentage of the global population lived in cities. The world was still predominantly rural and agricultural, as it had been for thousands of years. But as industrialization accelerated, so did urbanization, as impoverished farmworkers flocked to factories.

We are now in another period of epochal change, and urbanization is accelerating again. In 1950, approximately one-third of the planet’s 2.5 billion people lived in cities, whereas today, just over half of the world’s 7.5 billion people do. And by 2050, when the global population is expected to reach nine billion, an estimated two-thirds of all people will live in cities.

Urban areas are magnets for young people and entrepreneurs, because they provide a wide range of opportunities and dense professional and social networks. It is no coincidence that 80% of economic output originates in cities: urbanization is the engine of economic growth.

But while it is easy to focus on success stories such as Singapore and Dubai, or on the impressive features of cosmopolitan centers such as New York or London, urbanization is not without its challenges.

By 2050, some 600 million people will live in the world’s 25 largest cities, none of which are in the European Union. Most are in Asia, followed by Africa, including Karachi, Pakistan; Kabul, Afghanistan; Khartoum, Sudan; and Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And some believe that by 2100, Lagos, Nigeria, will be the world’s largest city – showing how quickly Africa is catching up.

At the recent Chicago Forum on Global Cities, policy thinkers and practitioners – including past and current mayors from Amman, Chicago, Prague, Lahore, Rio de Janeiro, and Toronto – met for a couple of days to discuss common challenges on the road ahead. They all agreed that many solutions to future problems will come not from national governments, but from municipal and regional-level policymakers.

Many cities and states in the United States are already bringing this point home, by ignoring US President Donald Trump’s renunciation of the Paris climate agreement, and doubling down on their own efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and achieve energy sustainability. Indeed, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo have now joined forces to combat climate change, giving the lie to Trump’s claim that he was elected to “represent Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

Climate change is one of three major challenges that will confront us in this new period of hyper-urbanization. Because all cities depend on energy, more needs to be done to improve sustainability and efficiency. Municipal and regional governments will need to step up their efforts to curb energy use, and introduce new green technologies, particularly in more rural areas.

The second challenge will be to address the effects of new digital technologies that are generally associated with the so-called sharing economy. Hardware and software applications that provide on-demand transportation, delivery, hospitality, and other services will revolutionize how cities operate and are organized; but adapting to these changes will require innovative new policies.

The third challenge relates to migration and its attendant security concerns. Global migration will likely continue to increase in the coming decades, with the very rich and the very poor alike flocking to megacities. Without the policies and infrastructure in place to absorb these new arrivals, megacities could fail, and degenerate into urban jungles that pose a security threat to surrounding regions and the world beyond.

Addressing these challenges will require deeper dialogue among global cities themselves. In the recent discussions in Chicago, there was a general sense that national governments, while important, do not approach most of these issues practically, or with the urgency they require. The Chicago dialogues, on the other hand, epitomized practicality, by finding common ground across wide geographic and cultural boundaries.

This implies that we should be careful not to exaggerate the differences between the most and the least advanced global cities. Security solutions in Toronto might very well be applicable in Karachi; and digital services in Singapore could eventually take root in Kabul.

Just as industrialism ushered in a new age for cities and countries, so, too, will digitization. To see the future that is taking shape, one need only look to the cities that are already shaping it.