Can the world’s megacities survive the new technologies of the digital age?

New York by night. Image: Getty.

Today, megacities have become synonymous with economic growth. In both developing and developed countries, cities with populations of 10m or more account for one-third to one-half of their gross domestic product.

Many analysts and policymakers think this trend is here to stay. The rise of big data analytics and mobile technology should spur development, they assert, transforming metropolises like Shanghai, Nairobi and Mexico City into so-called “smart cities” that can leverage their huge populations to power their economies and change the power balance in the world.

As technology researchers, however, we see a less rosy urban future. That’s because digitisation and crowdsourcing will actually undermine the very foundations of the megacity economy, which is typically built on some combination of manufacturing, commerce, retail and professional services.

The exact formula differs from region to region, but all megacities are designed to maximize the productivity of their massive populations. Today, these cities lean heavily on economies of scale, by which increased production brings cost advantages, and on the savings and benefits of co-locating people and firms in neighborhoods and industrial clusters.

But technological advances are now upending these old business models, threatening the future of megacities as we know them.

Manufacturing on the fritz

One classic example of a disruptive new technology is 3-D printing, which enables individuals to “print” everything from ice cream to machine parts.

As this streamlined technique spreads, it will eliminate some of the many links in the global production process. By taking out the “middle men,” 3-D printing may ultimately reduce the supply chain to just a designer on one end and a manufacturer on the other, significantly reducing the production costs of manufactured goods.

Will 3-D printing put you out of a job next? Image: Creative Tools/creative commons.

That’s good for the profit margins of transnational companies and consumers, but not for factory cities, where much of their transportation and warehousing infrastructure may soon become redundant. Jobs in manufacturing, logistics and storage, already threatened across many large sites, may soon be endangered globally.

In short, 3-D printing has transformed the economies of scale that emerged from industrialisation into economies of one or few. As it spreads, many megacities, particularly Asian manufacturing centers like Dongguan and Tianjin, both in China, can expect to see widespread disruption to their economies and work forces.

Decline of the shopping mall

The retail sector is experiencing a similar transformation. Shopping malls, for example, which once thrived in megacities, are now suffering from the advent of e-commerce.

The value proposition of shopping malls was always that their economies of scale were location-dependent. That is, for malls to be profitable, they had to be sited near a large consumer base. Densely populated megacities were perfect.

But as stores have moved online, megacities have lost this competitive advantage. While online shopping has not completely replaced brick-and-mortar retail, its ease and convenience have forced many shopping malls to close worldwide. In the U.S., mall visits declined 50 per cent between 2010 and 2013.

Cities in China, where the government has sought to build its national economy on consumption, will be hit particularly hard by this phenomenon. China has the world’s largest e-commerce market, and it is estimated that one-third of the country’s 4,000 shopping malls will shut down within the next five years.

As mobile technology continues its spread, accessing even the most remote populations, this process will accelerate globally. Soon enough, retail websites like Amazon, Alibaba and eBay will have turned every smartphone into a virtual shopping mall, especially if the dream of drone delivery becomes a reality.


The new work force: Robots, AI and the human cloud

Changes in the business world will also affect cities worldwide.

Thanks to artificial intelligence, or AI, which makes it possible to automate numerous tasks, both manual and cognitive, these days it’s goodbye, human bank tellers and fund managers, hello robots.

Even in jobs that cannot be easily automated, the digitised gig economy is putting people into direct competition with a global supply of freelancers to do tasks both menial and specialised.

There are certainly benefits to crowdsourcing. Using both AI and the crowdsourced knowledge of thousands of medical specialists across 70 countries, the Human Diagnosis Project has built a global diagnosis platform that’s free to all patients and doctors – a particular boon to people with limited access to public health services.

But by taking collaboration virtual, the “human cloud” business model is also making the notion of offices obsolete. In the future, medical professionals from various specialties will no longer need to work near to each other to get the job done. The same holds for other fields.

In a world without office space, traditional business and financial centers like New York and London would feel the pain, as urban planning, zoning and the real estate market struggle to adjust to firms’ and workers’ changing needs.

What would Tokyo be without its office space? ImageL Yodalica/creative commons.

Crisis in the making

At some point, all this change may end up meaning that economies of scale matter much, much less. If that happens, population size – currently the motor of the modern metropolis – will become a liability.

Megacities have long struggled with the downsides of density and rapid urbanisation, including communicable disease, critical infrastructure shortages, rising inequality, crime and social instability. As their economic base erodes, such challenges are likely to grow more pressing.

The damage will differ from city to city, but we believe that the profound shifts underway in retail, manufacturing and professional services will impact all of the world’s seven main types of megacities: global giants (Tokyo, New York), Asian anchors (Singapore, Seoul), emerging gateways (Istanbul, São Paulo), factory China (Tianjin, Guangzhou), knowledge capitals (Boston, Stockholm), American middleweights (Phoenix, Miami) and international middleweights (Tel Aviv, Madrid).

And because 60 per cent of global GDP is generated by just 600 cities, struggle in one city could trigger cascading failures. It’s conceivable that in 10 or 20 years, floundering megacities may cause the next global financial meltdown.

The ConversationIf this forecast seems dire, it’s also predictable: places, like industries, must adapt with technological change. For megacities, it’s time to start planning for a disrupted future.

Christopher H. Lim is senior fellow in science, technology & economics at RSIS, Nanyang Technological University. Vincent Mack is an associate research fellow in RSIS, Nanyang Technological University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How getting a dog made me hate London less

A dog called Martha. Image: Jamie Ross.

I never have been anything but a staunch hater of London. Growing up in what a friend from Chicago called “a forest reserve”, my entire life has been split between a suburban one in a leafy town near Dayton, Ohio and an urban one, spent in stupidly pretty, and still fairly leafy, Edinburgh. I moved to London for a hot second in 2016, hated my job as well as my surroundings, and left, pretty much immediately.

And then, almost two years later, I was offered my current role at the New Statesman, and I packed up my shit and dragged my reluctant boyfriend with me to do it all over again. I sort of enjoyed my summer in London – but I felt strongly that living in the city would never feel like anything other than a necessary evil.

I live in – this is your moment to laugh and call me a posh prick – Notting Hill. It’s a decent location, has more trees and parks than other parts of the city, and, most importantly, is the closest I could get to replicating my old neighbourhood of Stockbridge in Edinburgh, which I loved dearly. But even this isn’t enough to entirely counteract the fact my physical surroundings, on my commute to the office by the Temple, made me feel constantly claustrophobic and stressed. London is cold and unfriendly, compared to many parts of this country, and it is filthy – not in a snobby, prissy, precious fuckhead way, but in a “My life expectancy has probably dropped by three years breathing in this polluted air and stepping on broken glass” way. For my first few months in London, in the middle of the heat wave, walking the streets was like walking through an endless sludge: this was not a city I liked nor one I, really, wanted to live in.

Until I got a puppy.

The one condition my boyfriend imposed when he agreed to trudge down to London with me was that we find a flat where our letting agreement said that we could have dog. So, three months after our move, we got Martha, a twelve-week-old black cockapoo.

Getting her changed our lives in a lot of ways. It’s made it impossible for us to leave the house without having a human being on attendance to watch her like a hawk. It means I now have to wake up at 6:45am every day, weekends included, so that she can take a shit. She has improved our lives remarkably - I mean, we have a living floof doing sweet and adorable shit in our house – but she has changed things a lot.

And the thing I least expected this goddam dog to change has been the way has made me feel more integrated into this godforsaken city: she’s made me appreciate London, even with its downsides.

Actually, something else happened, without which I don’t think my point of view would have changed. Almost immediately after getting Martha – and I mean, like, within hours – I contracted a disgusting cold. The day after that cold cleared up, I got violent conjunctivitis, like the disgusting seven-year-old I am, which took a week to get over.

These two illnesses, combined, lasted around two weeks, so I was trapped at home for roughly seven days of the ten I would normally have been at work. That meant I was around to relieve the puppy burden from my home-working boyfriend.

I was tasked with dragging my puss-filled eyes out to let our dog have a run around, and to get her to piss every couple of hours. This new responsibility forced me to explore the neighbourhood that, for the three months previous, I had generally ignored. What I thought was the worst timing known to man was, not to exaggerate, life-changing. I’m not sure I would have come to this realisation about my new home had it not happened.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Another great day at the park! Pic by fellow small creature @esther.dominy.

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

Happy City by Charles Montgomery is a book all about how urban planning can make or break our wellbeing – what commutes, cars, bikes, and greenspace do to our mental health. One portion of the book is spent debunking the idea that the sheer amount of greenspace in an area is what makes us happy. Montgomery argues that it’s actually the regularity of greenspace that makes a real difference – it’s not just how much grass and trees there is in the city you live in, but how often you get to see it.


Pre-Martha, my exposure to grass amounted to the occasional lunch in a garden and a visit to Hyde Park once or twice a month. But within a matter of days of getting a dog, I learned that I had not one, not two, not three, but five (five!) piss locations within five (again: five!) minutes of my house. Some were suitable for little more than the aforementioned – but others gave her enough room to run after sticks, leaves, tennis balls, and, her favourite, other dogs, so that she’d be pleasantly exhausted for the rest of the day. What I originally thought was just an expanse of buildings and pavement stretching from my flat to Hyde Park was actually filled with pockets of green spaces that made this trash-laden hell-hole feel a lot less oppressive.

Spending time at parks where other dogs also go to piss meant I started to make relationships with other dog-owners too. For the first time in any place I’ve lived in outside of my home town, I actually started to meet my neighbours, and learn about things that were happening in my neighbourhood, that I would never otherwise never known about. I now know Tiggy, Rex, Bubba, and Charlie, as well as their respective owners. I also know about good pubs, family-run restaurants, and free events that are far better than the deeply average, pretentious brunch place recommended to me by The Culture Trip. My neighbourhood has feeling like a dead space between Tesco, my bus stop, and the tube, to a place I can see as a respite from the rest of this stressful city, full of people I know and new places I’d have otherwise not thought twice about.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Me and some new friends from the other day! Hoping for some more social time this weekend 

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

And taking her out at the same time every day, around the 7am mark, means we then almost always run into the same people. A very sweet kid walks to school around the same time and always smiles at her. We see the same woman with her dog, who always greets Martha with aggressive barking, ultimately ending in a congenial ass sniff. We let her jump up at the incredibly patient builders doing construction on a building at the end of our street.

This morning ritual, seeing my neighbourhood when it’s not rammed with tourists but is quiet and reserved for people who live or work nearby, has become a way to decompress at the start of every day. And as a woman, being up and out when it’s often dark, but seeing people I now recognise, means my neighbourhood has become less intimidating. For the first time in London, I feel safe and comfortable even late at night.

Beyond the confines of my neighbourhood, Martha has made me see London, not for what it does for me, but for what it provides for her. Never have I ever had such an appreciation for London’s public transport system than when I got my dog, who wears a big stupid grin at all times when riding the bus. (Her internal monologue honestly appears to be an endless loop of, “ALL OF THIS STUFF WOW MORE STUFF OH GOD REALLY COULD THERE ACTUALLY BE MORE STUFF HELLO EVERYONE HI OH HI WOULD YOU LIKE TO PET MY HEAD?”)

Even long journeys are now a delight, because watching your puppy be amazed, fascinated, and happy at all times, eventually passing out from exhaustion at all the energy expended, is incredibly heart-warming. Faced from the bus, London, even at its busiest, feels far better with my dog than on my own: her pure, unadulterated excitement is enough to make holding a wild animal on a packed motor vehicle worthwhile.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

dad taught me love • dad taught me patience • dad taught me pain

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

I’m almost certain I will never love London. I don’t think I will ever feel charmed enough by the charming parts to outweigh the onslaught of the, often, literal shit it brings with it. Not everything about having a dog in London is great, of course: there is trash everywhere, trash I used to pass nonchalantly but now have to heave my dog away from in case she eats a used condom or even another dog’s shit. And, obviously, living in a city is probably never great for an animal compared to, say, a suburb or the countryside.

But through my dog I’ve learned what’s actually around me, not just what I narrowly perceive on my begrudging walk to work. Doing that has made London feel a lot less like my own personal hell. Slowly, Martha is making London like some kind of twisted, imperfect, home for me.

Sarah Manavis is the digital culture and tech writer at the New Statesman. She tweets as @sarahmanavis.

Martha Ross-Manavis is small and cute dog. You can follow her on Instagram at @heythereitsmartha.