The urban revolution

Urbanisation, as seen from space. Image: Getty.

As years go, 2008 was a bit of a biggie. It was the year that the United States elected its first black president. It was the year the Large Hadron Collider came online, and didn't destroy the universe. And it was the year Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers blew up, taking large chunks of the global economy with them.

But something even more momentous happened that year – something that will, in the long-term, have far greater long-term implications. In 2008, for the first time in history, a majority of humanity lived in cities.

In the west, we've grown so used to the idea that most of us live in urban areas that it's easy to forget quite how radical a change this is. But for most people, during most of history, life was tribe, village or field: the city was exotic and unfamiliar, if not altogether alien. As recently as 1800, just 3% of the world's population lived in cities.

Then the industrial revolution happened. By 1990, 40% of the world's population was urban; by 2008, it was half. Today, most authorities reckon that 53% of the world's population are crammed into roughly 3% of the world's surface. In 2012, there were 3.7 people living in cities – in 1970, there weren’t that many people in the world. All this adds up to nothing less than a revolution in human civilisation.

There are a few other facts about the urban revolution that it's worth highlighting up front.


It's big

Before the twentieth century no more than a handful of cities had ever held a population of more than 1 million. (Exactly how many is a matter of some debate: both records and historical administrative skills are a bit patchy, and one suspects propagandists to have muddied the waters further.)

Today, there are at least 466 cities with populations of over that size. At least 30 of these are ‘megacities’, with populations of 10 million or more.

466 Number of cities with populations of over 1 million

22% Proportion of world population they contain

By far the largest is Tokyo, which has a population of 38 million, more than that of over 150 countries, and which single-handedly generates around 2% of the world’s GDP. (Its unexpected disappearance could thus tip the world into recession, something that comes up in Godzilla movies less than you’d think.) In China, though, there’s talk of a turning the Beijing region into a single, giant megacity containing 130 million people.

Humanity isn't just increasingly urban, it's increasingly metropolitan.


It's everywhere

It's tempting to assume that the urban revolution is actually just a function of shifts in the global economy: a result of the rapid development of Asia, by far the world's most populated continent.

That's true, but also incomplete. In fact, urbanisation is going on in every region...

...and in every income group.

There are over 190 countries in the world. Fewer than 30 of them haven't seen an increase in urbanisation over the past generation.


And it's speeding up

By 2030, the UN predicts, 60% of the world's population will live in a city. By 2050, it'll be 70%. Demographic forecast is a difficult business, requiring a lot of different assumptions about a lot of different variables – but no serious authority expects urbanisation to slow down any time soon. We've seen the future. And the future is urban.

 


There are many ways in which this will make life better. Urbanisation is both the result, and a driver, of economic development: the agglomeration effect of cities means that companies can grow, and ideas can spread, faster.

More than that, though, they can make the world seem smaller. The psychological distance between New York and Mumbai, the difference in outlooks and life experiences, is far smaller than that between, say, rural Wyoming and Utter Pradesh. Urban life means more opportunities to meet different types of people, experience new cultures or cuisines, or just live however the hell you want to live. In almost any field of human endeavour you can name, the city provides a bigger canvas: there is a reason that no starry-eyed 14 year old dreams of making it big in the Cotswolds.

Set against that, though, you have stress, crime, pollution, and all the other problems that inevitably arise when you try to squeeze ever larger populations into the same basic space. There are questions, too, about whether our legal and governmental institutions will remain effective in an age in which economic power is increasingly concentrated into smaller shares of the globe, and when London competes less with Liverpool than it does with with Lahore. It’s possible that urbanisation could drive inequality, even create a new global class system.

The urban revolution is one of the biggest things ever to happen to humanity. It'll have a profound and lasting impact on almost every area of human endeavour, changing how we live, what we build, where we work, and how we get there.

CityMetric will explore all these topics and more. Working with our partners at Timetric, we'll use data to track the changes in the way humanity lives and works, and make forecasts about how the world is changing. Our writers will report on the challenges facing different cities, and the answers their populations are finding to them. We'll probably end up writing a fair bit about geeky stuff like skyscrapers and metro maps, too.

It's going to be fun. Stick around.

Data sources: World Bank; Demographia World Atlas, May 2014; CityMetric Intelligence.

 
 
 
 

Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.


He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”