Sunday, December 18, 2011

Are megacities sustainable?

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Summary: The word’s largest urban centers will be responsible for providing food, shelter, and jobs to roughly 8 billion people by 2100. The biggest obstacle may not be adequate resources or technology, but rather management, say experts.

Will megacities be surrounded by parched, lifeless lands? (Credit: ilker canikligil)

Soon after the United Nations declared that the world population has topped 7 billion people, doomsday advocates sounded off about pending shortages of energy, water, and food as optimists turned a blind eye, saying that we’ve heard it all before.

One thing is for certain: more and more people are living in cities, and increasingly in megacities (cities with over 10 million inhabitants). In 1975, there were just three cities that fit the bill: New York, Tokyo and Mexico City. Today, there are at least 20 more. Many, including Shanghai, Jakarta, and São Paulo have reached supercity status (greater than 20 million).

Financial Times editor David Pilling writes about how the character of cities is being rapidly redefined, noting that by 2050 three-quarters of the world’s population will be urban. By 2100, the figure will nudge up to 80%–that’s 8 billion urbanites among the UN’s projected 10 billion souls on earth at the turn of the century.

This raises many questions about the future of urbanization. First that comes to mind: Will human ingenuity march in lockstep with the growth by advancing agriculture, energy and technology to sustain the urban centers of tomorrow? If past performance is any measure of future success, then the answer is a cautious “yes”.

Blame limits to growth on management, not resources

The biggest challenge, say experts, is actually management. It is the leading cause of inadequate housing, transportation systems, pollution control and disaster preparedness.

Researchers at the McKinsey Global Institute have been studying urbanization and found that there is, in theory, no limit set by technology or infrastructure to how big or how fast cities can grow, and problems stemming from rapid city growth are not directly the result of insufficient resources, but rather from poor management:

….the growth of most urban centers is bound by an inability to manage their size in a way that maximizes scale opportunities and minimizes costs. Large urban centers are highly complex, demanding environments that require a long planning horizon and extraordinary managerial skills. Many city governments are simply not prepared to cope with the speed at which their populations are expanding.

McKinsey suggests that there are four principles of effective city management: (1) funding for infrastructure; (2) modern, accountable governance; (3) proper planning horizons that span 1-40 years; and, (4) dedicated policies in critical areas such as affordable housing. At least in the technology department, progress is well underway.

Mass urbanization will bring with it mass digitization

As cities grow larger and more rapidly, new “smart city” technologies will unleash massive streams of data about cities and their residents.  City-scale operating systems are already in development and promise to intelligently monitor and automate traffic lights, air conditioning, water pumps, and other systems that influence the quality of urban life while driving down the costs of operating a city.

New sources of information could also provide the opportunity for cities to improve government services, alleviate poverty and inequality, and empower the poor, according to a report from the Institute of the Future.

To learn more:

An operating system for smart cities

Interview: MIT’s SENSEable City Laboratory

Urban ecosystems will work in tandem with their natural environments

Paris reinterpreted: First place winners of the Living City Design Competition--Daniel Zielinski and Maximilian Zielinski--illustrate how people can thrive in partnership with nature.

Large-scale sustainability projects like Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates and Germany’s “Morgenstadt” serve as models for green urban development. They showcase how cities can obtain power from renewable resources, run quieter with fleets of electric vehicles, and promote low-energy living using smart meters.

It could take decades, but today’s metropolises will gradually restructure using these technologies to reduce carbon emissions and achieve greater harmony with the natural environment.

Leading the charge for an ecologically restorative future is the International Living Future Institute, a non-profit organization that is “raising the bar for true sustainability”. Through its Living Building Challenge, the institute has defined a set of rigorous development standards that exceed every LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification level, including platinum. To date, there are active programs in the U.S., Canada, and Ireland, and the organization is looking to expand in other countries.

The world in 2100

While speculative, a convincing McKinsey analysis suggest that by 2100, urban-to-urban cross-border migration will be more prevalent than it is today, resulting in an “immense intermingling of ethnicities”. The world will go from a 7,000-language planet to a couple of hundred languages at the most, and the gap between rich and poor should narrow in all places.

Not to be a Debbie Downer, but there’s also the potential for food shortages stemming from extreme droughts, and unemployment can be a significant issue in the face of inexorable growth in automated technologies. On the plus side, average global lifespan will increase to 81 years and hydro energy and renewable energy could be our primary sources of power by 2100 and beyond.

In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus famously argued that poverty and famine were natural outcomes of population growth and that controls be put in place to evade disaster. It’s been over two hundred years and the population is 7x greater and the specter hasn’t come true. Hopefully, that remains the case for the next 100 years and beyond.


Massive timeline of future history
The silver lining of a world run amuck by machines
A roadmap for growing prosperity while saving the planet

Christopher Jablonski is a freelance technology writer.

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