Citizens of Cities Not Nations – Implications of an Urban World for Government

By Jonathan Woetzel

An urban world is a fundamentally different place with implications for governance, environment, and technology, not just demography. In some ways this will be a “back to the future” experience. Conurbations are the original unit of social organization dating from Gilgamesh and the warring states of China. Technology development, notably large-scale agricultural engineering, led to imperial bureaucracies and the amalgamation of these clusters into what became nation-states. However, cities have always been the centers of civilization. By 2050 the scale and density of these clusters relative to the whole of humanity will be unprecedented.

The implications go well beyond demographics. In an urban world there is no longer a rural reservoir. Impacts of social crises no longer roll slowly through the countryside, sometimes to peter out unnoticed by the rich and powerful. Rather events explode, demanding immediate responsive governance. Humanity’s most pressing security threats will be urban in nature with the advent of bioterror and pandemics. Environmental pressures will be immediate as urbanites struggle to adapt to a volatile context with rising weather uncertainties, extended global supply chains, and mounting waste and water challenges. On the positive side, innovation hubs will drive scientific development. The correlations between technical productivity and density are clear. Geoffrey West’s work notes that with urban scale we get 1.2 times everything – patents, economic growth, crime. The basis is network effects as in an urban context we get to share it all – the good, the bad and the ugly.

The winners will be those urban leaders who are most effective at building cohesive, integrated, sustainable clusters. National governments that stand in the way of these clusters will fall behind as the costs of their inefficient health plans and outdated military machines mount. Successful clusters will have the scale to fend for themselves politically, economically and environmentally in an atomized landscape. Accountability will be a first marker of their potential. Recognizing the complexity of federal, state and local interactions, cities that have gained an increased measure of local responsibilities for both income and expenditures will be more successful in making change happen. Effective local leaders can enable local clusters to form, incorporating externalities in a planned way, enfranchising minorities, and developing integrated city plans. Key tools include the use of big data, empowering city employees, and long-term professional financial management.

Successful cities are the future – there is no other model for human development. The urban world will be one in which we will be first and foremost, citizens of cities.

Jonathan Woetzel is a Director in McKinsey & Company’s Shanghai Office and Co-Chair of the Urban China Initiative (http://www.urbanchinainitiative.org). The views expressed herein represent his personal views and do not necessarily reflect the perspectives of any organization with which he is affiliated.

5 comments on “Citizens of Cities Not Nations – Implications of an Urban World for Government

  1. Pingback: “Global Trends”- CIA: Asia will as before be the center of economich development – Europa and US will losse their postions. Middleclass will be soon most important globally, but consume more and more, which will be a big problem for envi

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  3. While I agree that urbanization will present the challenges and opportunities outlined here, the implications for political identity are less clear. An increase in the economic and political weight of cities is certainly occurring, but they may not be willing or able to “fend for themselves” for two reasons. First, the political, economic, and military landscape may not sufficiently “atomized” to obviate the need for larger scale governance. In this scenario, even successful cities would not possess the leverage needed to secure their interests in international trade negotiations, address military threats with economic implications, or combat climate change – to name just a few issues. Second, even if they are materially able to go it alone, those living in cities may choose not to as it would raise the cost of providing public goods. One or both of these outcomes would mitigate shifts away the nation-state as citizens’ primary political identity.

  4. Pingback: Urbanization and the World in 2030: Concluding Reflections on the NIC Blog for the Week of July 15-21 | Global Trends 2030

  5. Pingback: Urbanization’s Implications for Governance | Global Trends 2030

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