Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Urban Future

The Urban future has arrived. We entered this century with about 45% of the Global population in cities. The pace of migration from rural to urban is continuing unabated. We may already be at the 50% urban mark, if not we are approaching fast. This is likely a tipping point.

Why are people moving to the cities? Stewart Brand started looking and writing about this several years ago. He sums it up nicely – cities provide education, work (i.e. income) and services. The city provides a better quality of life and higher standard of living than any rural alternative.

The cities are also the planets salvation. A person in a city requires fewer resources to support a comparable quality of life. But most important cities, are population sinks. Birth rates in cities naturally drop from above 5 births woman on average globally in rural areas to less than 2 in developed urban areas. Today birth rates are only 2.1 in developing urban areas in Brazil and India.

Because of accelerating urbanization and an unprecedented change in birth and survival rates, standard population forecasting is proving unreliable. The sky-is-falling “population bomb” predictions of the past are yielding to a growing consensus that we are within a generation of reaching the maximum global population. Many now suggest that the maximum may be in the 8 billion range. Even the UN has declared it is not likely to exceed 9 billion.
Population is not a problem, it’s an indicator. More to the point, “overpopulation” takes care of itself. Our challenge and opportunity is developing new ways to provide productive employment for the high density urban workforce. What does it mean if your potential workforce is not limited to the suburbanites that live within 50 minutes drive of your tilt-up office park? How do you tap the increasingly educated, highly connected, highly motivated workforce in the vibrant urban centers of Shanghai or Dubai; or San Francisco or Portland for that matter?

The housing and education of Shanghai’s exploding population is remarkable. The new Shanghai is more connected and has greater availability of intellectual (and arguably creative) capital than any city in the US or Europe. Mumbai, Dubai, Rio and dozens of other developing urban centers represent the same potential. What could this mean for the business of the future? It changes all the rules. That is why Shanghai is so interesting.

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