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Urbanization and the Future of Cities at Geo2050

October 9, 2015

Geography 2050 is a symposium to gather the brightest thinkers that live and breathe geography, either as a core business or a peripheral part of their core expertise, and discuss the potential markets, changes, and potential for where we’ll be in the field of geography by the year 2050.

Last year we attended the first annual event held in New York City and hosted by the American Geographical Society. Several hundred geography experts from academia, business, government, and military gathered at Columbia University’s gorgeous Low Memorial Library to discuss where the geospatial sciences were headed in the next 35 years. The theme of the event was on mounting “an expedition to the future”, and over the 2 days an impressive number of topics were posed, demonstrated, and debated around things like data and the “Internet of things”, energy sustainability, sociocultural geography, health care, and climate change — a full plate of topics to hit over the course of 2 days of discussion.

A salient thread that emerged from all of last year’s discussions was urbanization and the inevitable and endless migration of people to cities. The concentration of humanity in some of the world’s megacities is astounding and increasing, which over the course of the next few decades will result in massive change in how we build infrastructure, provide public services for these super-concentrations of people, and maintain (or hopefully increase) quality of life. This is the theme of this year’s event: “Exploring Our Future in an Urbanized World”.

The city of Guangzhou, China

I wanted to touch on a few subjects I’m looking forward to discussing, but first let’s ponder a few staggering statistics to put the problem in perspective:

  • China has 35 cities with populations over 3 million — the United States has 2
  • Bangladesh’s population is half that of the United States, but it’s the size of Iowa
  • Tokyo–Yokohama is a megacity with a population of 37 million, equal the entire state of California (a real-life version of the Sprawl)

And these are numbers we’ve already reached. Pondering where we’ll be in 35 years is hard to imagine.

The Changing Nature of the Service Economy

As people cram together in such enormous numbers in growing megacities, it’s interesting to imagine how the balance between the service economy and manufacturing will evolve to provide livelihood and services for citizens. We regularly associate the service and “knowledge work” economies with first world cities like New York, London, Paris, or Sydney, but as world cities grow in density and affluence, the demand for the same first world services we have an abundance of in the US grows. I read recently that Uber is now available in cities like Amman, Lagos, Bogotá, and Wuhan, to name a few — not cities you’d typically associate with luxury services like Uber, but it’s demonstrative of the point: as cities and economies grow, the nature of the dynamics shift.

Ben Thompson recently wrote a series of articles culminating in what he calls aggregation theory, which addresses some of the massive market change we’ve seen in recent years with the expansion of the Internet and web-based services. In a nutshell, traditional companies focus on integrating their distribution of goods and services backward into supply. The Internet has reduced the cost of distribution to nearly zero, allowing new companies to integrate forward to customers and modularize the supply of goods and services, thereby aggregating distribution (Thompson’s an MBA and business analyst, so you’re better off reading his original post, it’s a fascinating read)1. His theory mostly revolves around technology companies and deliverables (Netflix, Google, Facebook), but as it applies most tangibly to cities, I’m interested in how the Internet has enabled physical goods and services to be more widely available across the globe, exemplars of this being Uber and Airbnb.

Where services like taxis and hotels used to integrate their supply chains (taxi services integrating fleets and fleet management and hotels integrating brand recognition and vacant rooms), Uber and Airbnb have gone the other way. Modularizing the supply (individual drivers, individual providers of rooms) has enabled them to integrate with the customers and control the end user relationship thanks to apps and the Internet. Getting back to the original point on why this will be interesting over the next decades with urban expansion, it reduces the cost of previously “luxury” services by increasing supply. As our world cities grow into the tens of millions in population globally, it’ll be necessary for service jobs to provide income, but also to retain or improve quality of life. The Internet has had massive change on how we communicate, share, and interact, but has also had physical impact on how we live together in cities.

What Will Cities Look Like?

Accommodating such massive urban growth will also naturally change the look and feel of cities in the near future. Horizontal compression requires people to be comfortable in closer quarters by more efficiently using the space, including building not only skyward (like Jeddah’s kilometer-tall Kingdom Tower), but also downward. In Wired magazine’s recent issue, there’s a fascinating piece on the future of cities highlighting some great examples of ongoing projects and designs to support this vast growth. The examples from Mecca are particularly impressive. Year over year the city sees more of the world’s Muslim’s making the pilgrimage for the Hajj, and the Saudi government is investing billions in infrastructure to support the enormous influx of people. Within a couple of years, Mecca will be home to the world’s 4th tallest building and the largest hotel on Earth.

Hong Kong apartment buildings

Last year German photographer Michael Wolf produced a photo series called “The Architecture of Density” in which he published stunning photos of Hong Kong apartment buildings to demonstrate the close quarters people already live in there (pictured above). Imagine this level of density projected out to encompass a megaregion 6 times the size of New York, like China intends to build around Beijing, and it’s probably not a far cry from what urban China will actually look like in 2050.

Managing Infrastructure in 35 Years

Since we make tools to help people better capture and make use of spatial information, this is a relevant topic to us. Tons of our users are involved in some form or fashion in the deployment, management, and maintenance of public infrastructure — pipes, wires, roads, bridges, and structures. As tens of millions of people continue to amass in cities around the world, efficient management of this infrastructure becomes all the more important. There will be so much of it that we’ll need public works organizations that can be more agile in response to problems, to keep water flowing, the streets clean, and the lights on.

The “Internet of things” is quickly becoming just as much a buzzword in the public works sector as it’s been in Silicon Valley. There’s a lot of talk about trash bins that can alert when they’re full, smart streetlights that can respond to the activity below them, connected parking spaces that can help you navigate to available parking — these things are an inevitability, and certainly stand to save billions in public sector expense once they’re a reality. But I think we’re a long way off from these systems having any ubiquity outside of the most forward-thinking cities and communities. We’ve still got at least a decade or two of doing things “the old fashioned way”, with workers on the streets keeping our cities humming along.

Turbine interchange in Dubai

I’m looking forward to hear what the diversity of people at Geo2050 will bring to the discussion. The schedule is packed with so many topics you could fill two weeks without running out of subjects to talk about. In addition to the topics I briefly touched on, there are also talks about human security in our future cities, vertical farming, migration and resettlement, and climate change. It’s shaping up to be an excellent event with voices and ideas around many of the facets of geography’s future. Check out more about Geo2050, happening in New York City on November 19-20.

Photos: Flickr, Michael Wolf, Mapbox

  1. Thompson has some great graphics to make his argument in his original post.