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How urbanisation became the ‘disease’ of global cities

UrbanisationAs urbanisation increases, cities around the world are becoming congested and overcrowded. Inhabitants are fed up with hours in traffic and paying extortionate rates for accommodation. Against a backdrop of Brexit and increasing global volatility, are we starting to see a case for anti-urbanisation? Globally, more people live in urban than in rural areas and, by 2050, the United Nations predicts that 66 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities. Are we making a mistake by accepting these statistics as inevitable? Is a blind headlong rush into urbanisation the best course of action?

Recent thinking confirms that the division between those who have captured the majority of the benefits from global integration and those who haven’t runs between major cities and smaller communities. The Brexit vote confirmed this growing disillusionment – the sector with the highest ‘leave’ vote experienced stagnating median household incomes for nearly two decades.

This is particularly pertinent in the developing world where population growth is highest due to, among other reasons, high birth rates from younger populations. Is this headlong rush into cities a quick way to create slums? Or is there another way and, if there is, is there something that developing nations could teach city planners (and satellite city planners) in the developed world?

When it comes to our cities, blind acceptance of the inevitable must not be the case.

Africa is an example. As people across the globe move from rural to urban areas in search of a better quality of life that provides employment, basic services, health facilities, adequate shelter and access to the global community, Africa has started to ask: what if we could provide all of this to people right where they are? Would citizens still want to move to congested, overcrowded urban centres if they were offered a better quality of life in their own environment? And could this contribute to a much-needed slowing down of urbanisation, turning urbanisation growth on its head?

The notion of Rural Development Districts aims to establish development hubs that will be the missing nodes that make up a truly prosperous circuit for citizens across the country to plug into. Scattered throughout the country, Rural Development Districts will be deliberately located in areas which were traditionally disconnected from major economic hubs. Initially driven by agriculture, they will later house a broader range of other industries, provide residents with access to modern amenities and ultimately a better quality of life.Urbanisation

Unlike most rural areas, they will be fully online, making use of WiMax technology to address the ‘last mile’ problem and provide continuous connectivity. Their schools and training centres will grant teachers and scholars access to the world’s brightest minds, while entrepreneurial centres will encourage residents to tap into the power of the cloud and develop African apps and online businesses that have access to global markets.

The Rural Development Districts also have the potential to provide perfect testing grounds for emerging technologies including 3D printing and advanced micro manufacturing. High tech components, produced for global export, could be produced in these locations which would have a significant impact on job creation outside of traditional industrial zones, potentially disrupting the traditional industrial parks. Goods and people that need to move to urban centres could be transported via a national network of hyper-loops that would connect rural liveable areas to the global market.

While the science of forecasting is uncertain, it seems very likely that some of the chronic stresses our cities face are set to get worse as urbanisation increases – including climate change, overcrowding and related social problems. Coupled to this, cities compete on a global scale. They attract populations and investment which continues to support rapid densification. Investing in improving already strained city infrastructure isn’t enough .

The rapid population growth in emerging countries and the potential for slums and degradation has to be an alarm call for a different model to be considered. It is not too late to shape the next wave of urbanisation . In fact, based on growing political undercurrents, this is something that all authorities need to embrace.

Economic ecosystems needn’t always be centralised within a city. They can be decentralised, but connected via technology and infrastructure. If the basic ingredients of access to jobs, amenities and lifestyle can be provided outside of our cities, then perhaps a solution to the negative effects of urbanisation is right at our fingertips. When we put human capital, and people’s well-being, future careers and prosperity, at the pinnacle of the priority pyramid, we may just succeed in writing a new narrative around the next form of globalisation .

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11 replies »

  1. This is confirmed by the logistical model problem in differential equations.

    Consider the stocking of fish in a lake with entrants of new fish each year. The harvest can be in equilibrium. Apply that to a city. This is the reason for the gridlock. It is important that a policy of phasing out old cars must be required by law. Singapore does this through taxation of old cars more than 5 years old. That was during the late 80s. Apparently economic planners in a city avoid this since the business of used cars is very lucrative – into the pockets of politicians and urban planners. So far, only democracy makes sense since people require mass transport to work which is vital for economic progress in any city. But often the implementation of mass rapid transit systems are long delayed.

    This is just one of the examples. One could apply the logistical model to practically all things physical in urbanization of cities. This is typified in the construction of high-rise residential units. But something has to give in the long run. When you overstock a lake with fish, eventually something has to give – fish die due to disease and the biological parameters are threatened, including biochemical oxygen demand. The same is true for humans in urbanized cities. The cost of living goes up since food must be maintained at high hygienic levels then prices increase.

    The growth of cities then becomes an economic model. That is, cost of goods and services increase equating to worth of cities. HSBC predictions are partly true for Asian cities in the next 20 years for being economic powerhouses. But this can hardly address the issue of solid economic fundamentals because costs increase for logistical reasons. It is not a fair prediction for economic progress.

    What is overlooked is the contribution of technology to real progress. This is the true economic indicator. When Bill Gates opened his company, he did not place his headquarters in an affluent city like New York, rather he went to Seattle which was not really upscale at that time. So are the other entrepreneurs going to Silicon Valley.

    But then in the long run, the fundamental reason one learns is a simple: the logistical model. It gives us the guide to avoid the superficial reason why cities exist and focus on the true parameter of economic growth.

    • Hi Alexander this blog is a condensed version of a longer article that addresses new emerging technologies and how they can be used to counter rapid urbanization. I agree with you that technology can make a significant contribution to real progress. In the African context we have seen that the continent is able to leapfrog the west because we learn from the developmental mistakes made by first world cities. Extract from my article for your information:
      The present age of ICT is being driven by the rapid escalation of the processing capabilities of technology. As more and more people across the globe get access to technology the more computing power is required. The leading edge of innovation in this space is the ability of computers to gather data, store data and manipulate this data faster and faster. Combining the growth in the technology with the exponential growth of telecommunications, results in one of the fundamental driving forces behind the present information age. Ongoing computing power and growth in telecommunications will therefore continue to drive each other to the point where everyone, everywhere will continually be online and have access to any information at any time. The RDD will be a fully online district where everyone and everything is connected to each other and to the outside world.

      RDDs will make use of WiMax technology to address the ‘last mile’ problem and will ensure that the entire RDD is continuously connected. The cost of bandwidth will be reduced substantially in the RDD. This will be achieved at a national level by government convincing private sector service providers to adopt a longer term development role, and move away from the growth at all cost business model. This becomes a crucial component of making the RDD model successful.

      Schools and training centres will be fully online with teachers and scholars having access to the world’s brightest minds. Primary education as well as post school training will focus on providing appropriate and relevant training to students. Education and further learning will be available to all residents of the RDD regardless of age. Online universities using VR distant training will be the global norm. Education will be exciting, cutting edge and relevant.

      Entrepreneurial centres will be encouraging the youth to tap into the power of the cloud and develop African apps that can be exported globally. These centres will become the home for developing online businesses and driving a new phase of African entrepreneurship that now have access to the global market. Technology will also play an important part in keeping the citizens of the RDD healthy by monitoring their health status remotely and providing them with diagnosis in their home. Of course the latest monitoring and security equipment will be deployed across the RDD making it a safe and secure environment.

    • We need smarter cities, but in order to make rural communities work better we need to raise the price of food and the price farmers get. Without that you will never keep people in rural areas. The other thing we need to do is stop shoving people off the land. As long as the palm oil plantations and the oil companies and the miners keep killing rural people who want to keep their land slowing the growth of cities is a fantasy. Maybe start with rural peasants and the original inhabitants of the land get land rights. Without that the article is a fantasy.

  2. The thinking behind the Rural Development districts is very progressive, decentralized economic eco system’s connected via technology and infrastructure. However it is also critical to note that the sustainability and maintenance of the infrastucture in cities due to urbanisation is also a growing concern as many cities around the world are suffering great infrastucture deficits. While it may look like the solution to the problem is creating more infrastructure, it is more the optimisation of resources to effective maintain these infrastructures because infrastructures become ineffective if the exist but do not serve the intend purpose.
    I think this sort of thinking should also be factored into consideration for Rural Development Districts.

    • Hi Emmanual, optimization of existing and new infrastructure becomes critical for global survival. This blog is a condensed version of a longer article on how emerging technologies can be uitilised to help slow down rapid urbanization. See extract from the article related to energy technology:
      As the global warming debate continues, we do see a move from traditional fossil fuels towards cleaner renewable energy sources. As technology develops, people are looking for cheaper, cleaner and more portable energy sources. We also see much development and research in the field of decentralised power generation compared to the centralised generation model that has driven urbanisation over the last decade. Because of the rapid pace of technology we see a number of different alternate energy solutions being implemented across the globe, resulting in a portfolio of different energy sources applicable for different environments. Energy requirements in our RDDs will be very different from energy requirements in a first world megacity.

      Advancement in energy storage devices or batteries powered by renewable energy will have a significant impact in the energy sector and, combined with solar PV, will power all houses in the RDD. People who decide to own a vehicle will be able to take their power with them across the district as vehicles will be used as energy sources and a means of transporting energy. Large-scale solar farms with extended storage capacity will be used to power the general requirements of the RDD. The PV industry will be another opportunity to create employment for maintenance and local manufacturing.

  3. Great article. I think the answer to a lot of problems faced in cities today could be answered by anti-urbanisation. Why can’t employees work from home being fully connected to ‘the office’ via email, IM and Skype. There are already companies doing this and taking advantage of savibgs in overhead costs associated with traditional office space. Face to face meetings could still be arranged but might be limited to one or two days a week. No more congested living or wasted time in traffic jams. I think this is the way forward.

    • Hi Drian yes without a doubt technology is changing the way businesses operate and all industries are getting disrupted by technology. Those companies that are in denial will not survive. Please see my response above to Alexander above which unpacks a bit more thinking on the technology related to the Rural zones.

  4. Great piece and I totally agree with this. Travelling through Ethiopia and east Africa, I saw so many areas that would benefit from 3D printers and makers labs, and the people are so connected through mobile technology that this would be very do-able.

  5. There has been much soul searching on the issue of burgeoning cities but rarely does anyone suggest that the problem is population growth which must be addressed and the sooner the better for all the world.

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