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.

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.