Guess where the future's most crowded cities will be

Hong Kong in 2025, artist’s impression. Image: Guzmán Lozano via Flickr.

Unless you’ve been living in a hole for the past five years, you’ll probably know that the world’s cities are getting bigger. Half the world’s population currently lives in them; by 2050, demographers predict it’ll be 70 per cent.

Some of those additional 20 per cent will live in new cities, created to meet the insatiable demand for an urban lifestyle. Sometimes, that’ll mean cities expanding; but sometimes, it’ll just mean cramming more people into existing ones.

To find out which cities will grow not just bigger, but more crowded, Bloomberg has put together a list predicting which will have the highest population density by 2025. Perhaps unsurprisingly, seven of the top 10 are in Latin America, a region whose cities are already teeming with informal slum settlements.

Here's the top ten:

(You can view the full list here.)

Hong Kong doesn’t just take the top spot: it’s predicted to be nearly twice as crowded as second ranked Salvadar’s. It doesn’t take a genius to work out why: the city-state is an island, and an rich one at that, so there are many incentives to move there, but, short of expanding onto the water (something the city is actually considering) there’s no way for the city to expand outwards. It’s a similar situation in Singapore (also an island), and in Salvador (surrounded by water on three sides).

One thing that isn’t clear is the city definition used by Bloomberg to create the predictions. It’s possible they’ve used the same urban boundaries for the 1995 figure and the 2025 figure, despite the fact these boundaries will likely change. However, examining the same urban area’s population growth over 30 years is still useful – in cities with expanding suburbs, fewer people will need to live in the packed centre. In cities with nowhere to expand, like Hong Kong, the population of that urban centre will necessasrily just keep getting higher.

Another interesting metric the list explores is the cities' percentage growth between 1995 and 2025, a period Bloomberg defines by that hazy metric, a "generation". In Hong Kong, for example, its growth over that period is predicted to be 36 per cent. This may sound like a lot, but Brasilia, which is seventh on the list, is expected to grow by a whopping 119 per cent. Two cities in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh and Jiddah, are forecasted to grow by 167 per cent and 137 per cent apiece.

Another surprise is Atlanta, Georgia. In terms of density, it takes 40th place on the list, but its population is predicted to grow by 115 per cent. Here’s the top ten cities by growth:

A report in Arab News last year claimed that Saudi Arabia’s urban populations are increasing so rapidly largely because the central government is investing in urban areas far more than smaller settlements. These cities are also relatively new, with swathes still under construction: Jeddah is currently building an entirely new transport network to deal with its terrible traffic and swelling population.

The four US cities predicted to double or nearly double by 2025 have post-recession rebounding economies to thank. Houston’s oil industry is booming, while Phoenix is becoming a slightly improbably tourist destination (we hear the golf’s lovely).

The names on this list suggest that, as rising prices make bigger global cities more inaccessible, it might be less famous cities that’ll  take the brunt of the next wave of urban migration.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.