In a globalized world, the problems of the poor today can, tomorrow—through migration, terrorism, and disease epidemics—become the problems of those at the pyramid’s top.
—RICHARD HEEKS

EAST WEST EAST

In 1950 there were only two megacities, metropolises with a population of over 10 million; London and New York. That world is gone. In our brave new world, the megacities are growing in number and at the same time they are moving East. It is estimated that by 2025, there will be about 40 megacities, out of which 28 will be in Asia, and only 5 in the West (London and Paris in Europe; New York, Chicago and Los Angeles in North America).

It’s not just a matter of the number of megacities, the population is also slowing down in the West. European and North American megacities are estimated to grow less than 3% per year, versus twice this rate in Africa (Lagos and Kinshasa).

This is not something that will take place in the distant future; in fact, it’s already happening. Of the top ten cities in the world, just one— New York—is in the West, and it ranks only in 9th position.

London is further down the list in 32nd position. However, with the massive growth in the financial and technological sector, the city is expected to increase its population by more than 25% by 2030.

China will soon be the leader in this game, with the relatively unknown Pearl River Delta to become the biggest megacity in the world. With a gigantic urban area of 16,000 square miles, the Pearl River Delta will be twice the size of Wales and 26 times larger than London.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

For most Westerners it is difficult to fathom that their cities are losing the spotlight, in fact, this is nothing new. From a historical perspective, the West has been the land of big cities for only a small parenthesis of time.

Beijing had reached a population of one million by 1775, which London reached only in 1825. Baghdad was acknowledged to have reached a population of one million in 925, and Rome by the end of the 1st century B.C. You could argue that Rome is indeed in the West, but this is not strictly true. Western culture was born in Europe with the industrial revolution, and the culture of ancient Rome does not exist anymore.

Jakarta Megacity - Future Cities the Book
No, it’s not Blade Runner the movie. This is a real photo of Jakarta, capital of Indonesia

IT’S (NOT) THE TECHNOLOGY, STUPID

There is a common question in the startup ecosystem: why are people moving to the cities when they have technology and gadgets that allow them to work from a beach?

The first wave of urbanization that took place during the industrial revolution is easy to understand. Factories need people and people appreciate the stable source of income provided by a salary. In the rural areas farmers were subject to famine and instability.

This is not true anymore. Today we can work online while sitting in a farmhouse where the cost of living is just a fraction of what we would pay in a city. Still, cities are growing. Technology writer George Gilder wrote in 1995 that “Cities are leftover baggage from the industrial era”. He predicted that in 10 years, we would have the technology to abandon the cities. Gilder was right about the technology but wrong about everything else. Instead of shrinking, London is growing bigger and richer because of technology.

The reality is that technology has become so sophisticated that it can be easily used by anyone , but it is unlikely to be built by a single individual. Think about the video game. Back in the ‘80s it was possible to build a successful company in your garage. Today you’d need a staff of programmers, designers and story tellers to have any chance at competing in the market. If Leonardo Da Vinci was born today, he would probably be the CEO or CTO of a startup.

EVERYTHING IS A SOCIAL GAME

This level of sophistication requires an appropriate ecosystem to exchange ideas, find skilled human resources and meet investors.

The progress of a city is not just a technological competition, but a social one. Of the 100+ startups that I interviewed, those who are based in London, or who want to be in London, mentioned the vibrant international community as one of the top 3 reasons why they have relocated or would want to relocate here. A great community is the reason behind the success of Berlin, New York and of course Silicon City, the latter of which is further helped by a beautiful beach and fantastic weather. We can do business in front of a computer, but we start that business in front of a glass of wine, pitching to a partner or an investor.

Kuala Lumpur Smart Cities - Future Cities the Book
Another sci-fi scenario. Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia

THERE IS ONE MORE THING

The megacities in the developing world presents the same catalysts, plus a few others. An example is the leather industry that flourishes under the tinned roofs of one of the biggest slums, Dharavi, in Mumbia, India. The concentration of the work force in the same area reduces costs and provides a massive resource for training on the job. A farmer moving from a rural area to the slum can find someone who can teach him to work with leather in a matter of hours.

In an ideal world there would be no space for these slums, but in our world they are a reality. This is where technology could (and should) have a direct and large impact to improve the quality of life.

THERE SHOULD BE A BETTER WAY

Steve Jobs was famous for approaching any problem with the phrase “There should be a better way”. This approach built one of the most successful companies in history. The same approach could be even more effective in the poorer areas of a megacity. An iPod can improve your life with music; smart city technology can save your life by providing clean water or health assistance.

ACCESS health built a system of smart ambulances that have reduced infant mortality by a factor of 5x. Guo Bai—one of the interviewees in this book—talks about developing smart neighborhoods and pushing the changes from the bottom to the top. Cities and megacities are the hottest thing to follow in the next five years. It’s not just a matter of cold, hard numbers. The most fascinating thing will not be about the number or the location of megacities, but watching how technology can improve the quality of life for such a large mass of humanity concentrated in the same place. After thousands of years, we finally have the technology to make something truly useful. Hopefully we will not mess everything up as humans so often do.

LINKS

  1. Interactive map by McKinsey&Company
    http://bit.ly/megacities-McKinsey
  2. Interactive map by The Guardian
    http://bit.ly/megacities-guardian

Images by Júlio Boaro, Luke Ma and Edge Earth.


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