Against the tyranny of progress: How did we come to see urbanisation as a part of human evolution?

Blame these two: the statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Berlin. Image: Getty.

This is the third column in the "Critical Cities" series, which questions the rise of the now colossal and globalising "Urban Industry".

The first column argued that urbanisation was not natural or inevitable, but a direct result of the forces of capitalism.  The second examined how the Urban Industry actively misinforms through hyperbole on the benefits of an urbanised life – and claimed that everything we thought we knew about cities being wrong.

This column examines the philosophical underpinnings of the Urban Industry. It looks at how the "idea of progress" that argues cities are a symbol of human advancement was born, is embedded and continues to be transmitted, despite its deeply problematic foundations.

Urbanisation is transforming just about every aspect of our lives. And in recent decades, both the rate and the scale of the process has accelerated exponentially.

The figures are truly breathtaking. China alone plans to consolidate more than 900m people into cities by 2025. Already, there are an estimated 750m urban Chinese. In one generation, between 1980 and 2010, the share of the country's population living in urban areas increased from 19 per cent to 49 per cent.

It's a similar story in Venezuela, which, despite its ancient cities, vast rainforests and bountiful agricultural lands, has seen profound urbanisation take place. People have been forced off their lands for oil and mineral extraction – a result of wholesale corporate land grabs and the industrialisation of agriculture. Today, 93 per cent of Venezuelans live in cities, making it the most urbanised country in the world that is neither a city state nor an island nation.


The capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, ballooned from around 1m residents in 2001 to over 3.5m by 2010 – an increase due largely to NATO’s wars. The current rate of urbanisation is 5.4 per cent a year, one of the highest anywhere in the world.

But the most remarkable increases are yet to come, particularly in Africa and Asia. Urbanisation is big business – and there are plenty of people and corporations cashing in. An entire industry has appeared to assist, profit, influence and further boost and encourage the processes. We call it The Urban Industry.

While there are some variations around the world, the Urban Industry generally consists of interdependent, though often parasitic, businesses, politicians, NGOS, cultural intuitions and courts. One of the defining features of the industry is its global ambitions and western value system. The Urban Industry includes industries such as real estate, food and transport services. These are also some of the world’s largest and most profitable businesses, ever.

However, none of these regularly celebrated processes would have been possible without the Urban Industry’s key influencer and agent, academia; or without one tremendously seductive, though thoroughly problematic, idea: that of progress. In the century over which it has been popularised, it has become accepted to such an extent that it is now difficult to question, or even to see, it. The enthusiastic support of westernised academia has embedded the idea of progress into discourse to such an extent it is today conventional wisdom.

The idea of progress and the rise of the city

You would be hard pressed to find anyone, certainly in the English-speaking world, who doesn’t subscribe to the idea of progress. It’s the simple, promising notion that people and societies advance, go forward, and progress through stages in a linear motion – that they move inexorably closer to a better life, even toward utopia or perfection.

The thesis of progress is that, by picking up new tools and displaying different symbols in the practice and organisation of everyday life, and by eliminating “defects” and “drags”, humanity can be and has been improved. This view sees an arc of history, administered with a detached fairness via “the laws of nature”. Perhaps the most important element in this theory is that nothing should stand in the way – nothing should prevent or slow down “the march of history”.

Progressives feel they have a responsibility to assist societies move through or in to new stages of human development, and prevent it from “going backwards”. The abolition of “inefficient” rural and indigenous societies, and their replacement with industrialised urban economies, has been championed by progressives across the western political spectrum for the past century. The urbanisation and centralisation of humanity into cities is seen as a sign of human progress, of human development and something to celebrate.

So powerful and useful is this idea that it has effortlessly united and propelled western political thought and policy and education since the 19thth century. Marx’s economics was as influential in propagating the notion of progress as Darwin’s science was. Together, these theories still shape just about all policy, education, and possibly most human interactions.

Public figures from across the political spectrum fall over themselves today to call themselves “progressives”. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown energetically call themselves progressives. Tony Blair held his first anti-Corbyn press conference at the New Labour pressure group Progress (“Labour’s Progressives”).

Just another couple of progressive guys hanging out and shooting the breeze: former US presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Image: Getty.

The list goes on: George W. Bush, Bernie Sanders and the Clintons have all asked to be called progressives. Owen Jones enthusiastically calls for a “pan-British progressive grassroots political movement”. The infamous Koch Brother’s CATO Institute very recently launched a new organisation Humanprogress.org.

Why does the idea of progress unite the political spectrum? Partly it’s because it is one of those English words – like legacy, pride, or regeneration – that are so imprecise, overused and omnipresent that they provide an almost blank canvas. We can project onto them just about whatever we want.

This fits very well with western interests. According to “progressive” Yale and Columbia sociology professor Robert Nisbet, “the nobility, even the superiority of Western civilisation” would be a precondition for development across the world.

Cities and evolution

According to Marx and Engels societies everywhere must pass through a series economic stages – primitive communism, barbarism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism and then socialism. Only after that, can communism can be finally resurrected. (Libertarians have a similar theory, only their end goal is the wet dream of a robot automated paradise.)

In this theory, industrialised cities are not only understood as prerequisites for human progress. They are also considered as irrefutable material evidence of human progress, even human evolution. Human development, it is suggested, will occur through the industrialisation of the economy; through a centralised, urbanised workforce; and by ensuring the unchallenged access to raw materials, wherever they may be and by any means necessary.

Those in the way, those unwilling to be urbanised, are thus considered a drag and hindrance on human progress and evolution. The last few decades have been a blood-soaked testament to this logic. Intervention is considered both an urgent and noble contribution. Those unwilling were, and continue to be, eliminated as they are considered to be holding the rest certainly the elite back from reaching their and humanity’s full potential.

Unconvinced? Just consider some of the words often used to describe the indigenous nations of the world: backwards, unproductive, primitive, uncivilised, cute.

If you live in Australia or the Americas, then the foundations and constitution of your nation depends on the acceptance of such ideas. How else could an on-going occupation be possible?  And if you live in Europe, these ideas underpin globalisation and neo-colonialism – Europe’s very respiratory systems.

It is important not to ignore the similarities to Darwin biological evolutionary theory, and the idea of progress. Following Marx’s economic progress theory, people not living in westernised industrial cities are encouraged, lectured, bribed or forced to “grow up” and pass through these stages of human development. This, today, is euphemistically described as “International Development” or “Sustainable Development”.


Progress was the calling card for the Soviet Union as well as the ultimately triumphant NATO capitalists and their burgeoning NGO industry. For both expansionist camps, a central policy was the urbanisation of rural populations and the construction of industrialised modern cities.

This theory of righteous intervention, intended to forward human progress by moving millions into cities, has directly contributed to the soil all over this planet being soaked in blood. To consider just three examples: the millions killed or starved in Stalin’s forced urbanisation and industrialisation; the estimated 3m killed in Vietnam via the US’s Forced Urbanisation strategy; and the forced internment of the indigenous peoples in Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, to enable unencumbered the gold mining that people of European origin needed to fund their industrialisation.

Soweto: an example of forced urbanisation, conveniently located for Johannesburg. Image: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty.

Today, it is almost impossible to find a book or article concerning contemporary cities, which doesn’t enthusiastically work from the assumption that westernised cities are a motor of human progress. As brilliantly argued by David Bedford in The Tragedy of Progress; Marxism, Modernity and the Aboriginal Question, this supposition renders the overwhelming majority of the world’s peoples and their cultures, past and present, as uncivilised – even superfluous. These people are considered as unfortunate collateral damage in the inexorable march towards utopia.

The problem of the urban age

In recent years, the phrase “the Urban Age”, has entered everyday vernacular as a result of a much publicised (though entirely un-certifiable) claim that, in 2008, more people lived in cities than outside them for the first time. This use of archeological and evolutionary terminology helps propel the idea that cities are evidence of and contributors to humanity’s evolutionary development.

But the assertion today is resulting in cities themselves being pitched against each other in survival of the fittest style competitions. It perhaps should come as no surprise that European academics, brought together at Loughborough University’s Globalisation & World Cities Research Network, have used ethological terms to classify cities across the world. Inevitably, London and New York were classified as the only two Alpha ++ cities.

Such classifications improperly propel the supremacy of European “civilisations”. They fail to acknowledge just how New York and London accumulated their wealth, and what their global connectivity truly means for everybody else. They coerce nations to aspire to progress to what is ultimately entirely unattainable – and also entirely undesirable.

Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield are the founders of This Is Not A Gateway, and the editors of Critical Cities series of books.

“Critical Cities: Ideas, Knowledge and Agitation, Volume 4” is out now from Myrdle Court Press.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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