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.

 
 
 
 

Here are eight thoughts on TfL’s proposed cuts to London’s bus network

A number 12 bus crosses Westminster Bridge. Image: Getty.

In 2016, the urbanism blog City Observatory had a modest proposal for how American cities could sort out their transport systems: “Londonize”.

Its theory, the name of which referenced another popular urbanism blog, Copenhagenize, was that the key plank of Transport for London’s success was something that even transport nerds did not consider very sexy: its buses.

Though the Tube might get more glamorous press, London’s bus service really is impressively massive: It carries roughly 2.3bn passengers per year—much more than the Tube (1.3bn), close to the New York City subway (2.8bn), and nearly half as much as every bus service in America combined (5.1bn), while serving a population roughly 1/35 as large.

How has TfL done this? By making its bus network high frequency, reliable, relatively easy to understand and comprehensive. We rarely talk about this, because the tube map is far more fun – but the reason it’s so difficult to fall off the transport network in Greater London is because you’re never that far from a bus.

Given all that, we should probably talk about TfL’s plans to rethink – and in most cases, cut – as many as 36 different central London bus services over the next few months.

I’m not going to rehash details of the changes on which TfL is consulting from next month: there are just too many of them, and anyway it’s someone else’s scoop. The story was originally broken by Darryl Chamberlain over on 853 London; there’s also some fascinating analysis on Diamond Geezer’s blog. You should read both of those stories, though preferably not before you’ve finished reading this one.

Before offering my own analysis of the proposed changes, though, I should offer a few examples. More than a dozen routes are facing a trim: the 59 from King’s Cross back to Euston, the 113 from Oxford Circle to Marble Arch, the 171 from Holborn all the way down to Elephant & Castle and so on. A couple – the 10, the 48, the C2, and at most times the special routemaster version of the 15 – are being withdrawn altogether.

On, and one new route is planned – the 311, from Fulham Broadway to Oxford Circus. This will help plug some of the cuts to the 11, 19 and 22.

So, what does all this mean? Some thoughts:

1) This might not quite be as awful as it initially sounds

TfL says that demand for buses has fallen by around 10 per cent in London in recent years. It predicts it’ll fall further when Crossrail opens, as passengers switch to the new line, or to the tube routes relieved by the new line. So: the idea of taking some unwanted capacity out of the system is not, in itself, terrible.

Striping out unnecessary buses should also improve air quality in some of London’s worst pollution hot spots, and improve traffic flow, hopefully speeding up journeys on those buses that remain. 

A map from the presentation in which TfL explained its plans, showing the reduction in bus numbers on key arteries. Hilariously, notes Darryl Chamberlain, “It no longer produces its own maps, so has had to use one prepared by a bus enthusiast”.

The plans might even free up buses and staff to increase frequencies in outer London where demand hasn’t fallen – though these plans won’t be unveiled until next year and, for reasons I’ll come to below, I’ll believe it when we see it.

2) For many bus users, a lot of these changes will pass almost unnoticed

By my count, I use nine of the affected routes with any regularity – but only three of the changes are things that I’m likely to be at all inconvenienced by. Most of the changes either affect a part of the route I don’t take, or one where there are easy, and pain free, alternatives.

This is anecdotal, obviously – perhaps I’m just lucky. But my suspicion is that a lot of these changes will go unnoticed by most passengers. It’s only the sheer number of them happening at once that makes this look like a big deal.

3) The Hopper fare makes this easier...

Once upon a time, if you had to switch buses, you had to pay a second fare. This isn’t true of journeys on the tube or railways – and since bus passengers have, on average, less money than tube passengers, it amounted to a pretty unfair tax on poorer Londoners.

But in January, in what is probably his most notable policy achievement of his two years in office so far, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan changed the rules. Now you can take as many buses as you want within an hour, for a single fare: that means you can switch buses without paying a penalty.

That will have made it easier for TfL to cut routes back: replacing a direct bus journey with one that requires a change no longer means imposing a financial penalty on passengers.


4) ...but not that easy

That’s about where the good news stops, though – because there are reasons other than cost why people prefer direct bus routes. Needing to change buses will be difficult for anyone with any form of mobility impairment, for example. Even for those of us lucky enough not to fall into that category, it’ll be annoying: it’s just easier to stay in one seat for 40 minutes than to get turfed off and have to fight for a new one halfway through.

More than that, from the passengers’ point of view, excess capacity feels quite good a lot of the time: it means your bus may well be nice and empty. Reducing the number of buses along those key corridors will also make those that remain more crowded.

5) The motive is almost certainly financial

Another of Sadiq Khan’s big policy promises was to freeze fares. He made this promise at a time when central government is massively reducing the financial support it gives TfL (the work, Chamberlain notes, of Evening Standard editor George Osborne, back when he was chancellor). And the Hopper fare, while a great idea in many ways, means a further reduction in income.

So: TfL is scrambling for cash: this is why I remain cynical about those new outer London bus routes. I would be amazed if money wasn’t a motivation here, not least because...

6) TfL thinks no one will notice

Any attempt to reduce tube frequencies, let alone close a station, would result in uproar. Hashtag campaigners! Angry people pointing at things in local newspapers! Damning reports on the front of the Evening Standard from the bloke who made it happen!

Buses, though? Their routes change, slightly, all the time. And do you really notice whether your local route comes every 10 minutes or every 12? That’s not to mention the fact that bus passengers, as previously noted, tend to be poorer – and so, less vocal – than tube passengers.

So cuts, and the savings they bring, are much easier to sneak through. TfL probably would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling bloggers.

Although...

7) Scrapping the C2 might be a mistake

The C2 runs from Parliament Hill, through Kentish Town and Camden to Oxford Circus. In other words, it links north London, where a lot of journalists live, to the offices of the BBC and Buzzfeed.

As occasional New Statesman writer James Ball notes, this is probably not the easiest route to quietly shelve.

8) None of this is set in stone

The consultation doesn’t even begin until next month and then will run for six weeks – so all these plans may yet be forgotten. We shall see.

Anyway – here’s Darryl Chamberlain’s original scoop, and here’s some detailed analysis on Diamond Geezer. Please support your local bloggers by reading them.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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