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Cities set to embark on third wave of urbanization

Posted by Daniel Hoornweg on September 09, 2014

Around 5000 years ago, the first cities emerged in Mesopotamia and the fertile valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Agricultural surpluses enabled a few people to start specializing in something other than agriculture. The farmer who now had extra grain could trade for a better spear or a winter fur coat. This specialization and the ability to trade goods and services is the basis of urbanization. And, there was enough food that the starving artist didn’t starve completely, so along with trade, culture emerged.

Cities grew at a modest pace until about 1800 when the Industrial Revolution took off in the UK and cities developed at staggering rates. Manchester, for example experienced a six-fold population increase from 1771 to 1831. London went from about one-fifth of Britain’s population at the start of the 19th Century to about half the country’s population in 1851. This rate of urbanization has not let up for the last two hundred years; in fact it is still accelerating. The growth of cities seen over the last two hundred years will now be repeated, but this time in just forty years.

Changes to social norms and an appreciation of entrepreneurism, plus advances in technology and transportation, helped launch the industrial revolution, but the main driver was surplus energy – mostly coal, a little hydro-electricity and, more recently, oil – and growing amounts of natural gas, renewables and nuclear energy. Availability of (cheap) energy, with continued food (and water) surpluses, is driving our current fast-paced rate of urbanization and corresponding economic growth.

Assuming that we can keep growing enough food and supply enough energy for our cities – all without causing more ecosystem damage and, at the same time, while adapting to a changing climate and providing basic services to a billion slum dwellers – we will ride the next enormous wave of city building and economic growth. True, this is a tall order as the planet is already reeling from the impacts of the first and second waves of urbanization, but there is reason to be optimistic. If we get it right, the information age will turbo-charge urban growth, generate substantial new wealth and provide us with our best chances of eradicating poverty.

Cell phones, the Internet, 3D printing, gene sequencing, integrated sensors and continuous system monitoring, faster and faster rates of computations – these, and other technologies that support greater amounts, and more useful sources, of information, will drive the development of tomorrow’s cities. A few countries, companies and cities will try to hold back the data, and there will be bumps on the road in data management, privacy and ownership aspects, but the wave is rising and growing even faster and larger than the previous waves of food and energy surpluses.

Surplus food, surplus energy and now surplus information – these are the drivers of our cities. Each subsequent wave is much bigger, faster and potentially more rewarding and/or more catastrophic. Hang on – we really are in for a ride.

Filed under: Sustainability 101