January 25, 2012
The Strategic Foresight Initiative and the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) held a joint workshop, “Urbanization Nexus” on January 25 to inform the NIC’s Global Trends 2030 report. What do urbanization trends mean for the world of 2030? Which will be the impact of resource constraints and demographic realities on urban and rural populations? What role will technology play in the cities of the future as centers of growth and innovation?

NIC Counselor Mathew J. Burrows set the framework for the workshop. Burrows explained that his primary question moving into the day’s discussion is how traditional structures within cities, nation-states, and international institutions relate to and shape the future of urban spaces. What is the wider meaning of these relationships in regards to identity, citizenship, and ultimately, governance?

Richard Cincotta of The Stimson Center first addressed the implications of demographic shifts on urbanization trends and questions of state security. He discussed the existence of 4 demographic mega-trends concerning cities: they are demographically older than their suburban and rural surroundings, they strongly attract migration, rural-urban migration has been feminized in the last decades, and young adults are over-represented in urban spaces. Cities essentially function as population “magnets” – attracting migration from rural areas across regions and throughout the world. It is in urban spaces that these populations have increased access to social, political, and economic potential for growth and development. Ultimately, it is the imbalance in development standards and access to resources between rural and urban areas that poses the most pressing security concern for governments.

Janice Perlman of the Mega-Cities Project addressed the question of sustainable development in the macro cities of the future. Her research of the world’s “favelas” and city-slums illustrated the way in which such peripheral urban spaces are in fact teeming centers of potential growth. Although more than 50% of the world’s population live in urban spaces, only 10% of international aid is focused on cities. The development of sustainable infrastructure in these areas would require partnerships between civil society, grassroots organizations, private sector leadership, governments, and international institutions. Although the technology required to improve living standards is available, incentive structures for policy-makers that tap into systemic approaches to development will ultimately be the ones to scale-up micro-solutions to a macro-urban environment.

Jaana Remes of the McKinsey Global Institute commented on how urbanization trends pose challenges and opportunities for governance in the next twenty years. Although China and India are growing in similar patterns to Europe and the US at the turn of the century, what is markedly different is the scale and speed of development. The sweeping extent of growth has profound implications for governance: there will be a rising profile of cities as compared to national governments, increasingly powerful city mayors that will play a big role in international politics, a rising strength of middleweight cities as opposed to current mega-cities, and important growth and innovation coming from cities at a faster pace than the ones occurring at the nation-state level.

Banning Garrett of the Atlantic Council concluded the workshop discussing the way in which urbanization trends will pose challenging questions to notions of citizenship and identity, not only amongst urban poor but also wealthier demographics. He noted that a lot of migration will happen at “the top”, amongst wealthier urban populations as talent goes in search of the best positions in cities around the world. These people will also want to enjoy the “right of the city” as will the poor and the rural migrants to cities. Also important is the ability of urban centers to integrate and normalize growing sectors of the world’s informal markets as a key driver or the global economy. If 60% of global GDP growth comes from 600 cities in the world, it is these cities that undoubtedly have the capacity to lead the world towards sustainable solutions to political, social, and economic development challenges.