By Drew Erdmann
As the week’s discussion of urbanization closes, it is helpful to return to our starting point: we are now living through something unprecendented in human history. For the first time most people live in cities and towns. And the pace and reach of urbanization will continue every day, every week, every month for the next two decades and beyond.
This urbanization is helping to reshape our physical and strategic landscape. The world’s economic “center of gravity” has moved more rapidly in the past decade than at any time in the past two thousand years, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Every strategist and student should again contemplate this map and its significance:
This sort of historic change remains hard grasp, even when conveyed in such powerful graphic communications. Something more tangible is needed. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then perhaps two will be doubly powerful.
Consider Shenzhen, China, the city immediately to the north of Hong Kong and one of China’s first Special Economic Zones. Here is a photograph of Shenzhen circa. 1990:
Now consider this photograph of Shenzhen’s skyline taken in the past few years:
Imagine the scale and pace of the change experienced in Shenzhen to move it from fields to metropolis in a matter of a few decades. Then multiply it a hundred of times over. That is what is happening around the world.
This week’s posts all highlighted the incredible stress such change will place on our economies, infrastructure, climate and environment, social relations, mores and values, institutions of government, and even our identities. As Robert Kaplan’s influential 1994 article the “The Coming Anarchy” argued, such stress can drive fragmentation, conflict, and decline. But at the time historian Paul Kennedy rightly cautioned against “doomsterism.” We should heed his caution today: while the profound challenges in cities like Lagos or East Saint Louis cannot be denied, there are success stories (consider again those photographs of Shenzhen’s development).
Looking toward 2030, our world will be shaped by the complex interplay of the dynamics fueled by urbanization. There will be winners and losers — between countries as well as within countries and cities themselves. Some will adapt, innovate, and blossom; others will stagnate, degrade, and wither. Success will often be determined by how well leaders understand and act on the city as a system, as David Kilcullen argues. This will be an era defined in part by inequality and how well it is managed. We can envision ways to build more positive, innovative urban futures, as described by Brandon Fuller and Andres Cadena et al. Yet, we can also imagine much more challenging outcomes (see other contributions on national security part 1 and part 2, and governance). Some nation states might fragment under the strains of urbanization, while other national governments may simply decline in relevance as cities increasingly dominate the economic, social, and political lives of their citizens. Might we be heading “back to the future” to the time before nation states when city states and other political structures reigned? Whatever the outcome, the majority of humanity’s future will be found in cities.
Taken together, this week’s posts make clear that urbanization’s dynamics and interpedencies will pose new challenges for every country and city in the next two decades. Politicians, soldiers, diplomats, business people, urban planners, workers, and educators will all need to navigate new city streets, literally and figuratively. Capturing these navigational complexities and consequences should be a major theme running throughout the Global Trends 2030 report.
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A final word of personal thanks to all the contributors to the NIC Global Trends 2030 blog’s discussion of urbanization. These contributors offered original insights and analyses. And they offered these diverse perspectives from wherever they call home in this globalized era — not only the United States, but also Australia, Brazil, China, Colombia, and the United Kingdom. I appreciate how they responded with good cheer and great material to the request to contribute to the NIC’s dialogue aimed at improving the Global Trends 2030 report. Thanks again!
Drew Erdmann is a Principal in McKinsey & Company’s Washington, DC office. He previously served with the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the National Security Council staff. The views expressed herein represent his personal views and do not necessarily reflect the perspectives of any organization with which he is affiliated.