The rise of the megacity
November 15th, 2013
11:41 AM ET

The rise of the megacity

By Geoffrey West

Editor’s note: Geoffrey West is a Distinguished Professor at the Santa Fe Institute, and Chair of the Global Agenda Council on Complex Systems. This essay is adapted from WEF’s new report, Outlook on the Global Agenda. The views expressed are his own.

From global warming to homelessness, from debt crises to energy shortages, from insufficient water to outbreaks of disease, name any problem that concerns humanity and the city is the crucible where you will find it bubbling away.

But cities – and megacities in particular – whose emergence was recognized this week by the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Councils as one of the most significant trends for 2014, also represent our best hope for finding solutions to these enormous challenges since they are the cauldrons of innovation, ideas and wealth creation. Thus, an urgent challenge of the 21st century is to understand cities, and by extension megacities – those urban areas with populations exceeding 15 million.

Looking back over 150 years to megacities of the past, such as London or New York, it is clear they suffered from much the same negative image often associated with megacities of today. Think of the Dickensian image of London: a city pervaded by crime, pollution, disease and destitution. Still, these cities were highly mobile, highly evolving diverse societies, offering huge opportunities ultimately resulting in their modern manifestation as drivers of the world’s economy. Much the same could be speculated about megacities emerging today in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world.

Recently, my colleagues and I have been developing a “Science of Cities” to try to understand quantitatively how their socio-economic and infrastructural dynamics and organization work.  We found some surprising results. By analyzing data representing a broad spectrum of urban metrics of cities across the world, we found that they all scale in a remarkably similar fashion. This means that if you know the population of a city within some urban system anywhere in the world, you can predict with 80 to 90 percent accuracy its average income, number of AIDS cases, patents, crime rate, petrol stations, length of roads, etc. So, despite history, geography and culture, there are extraordinary systematic regularities and constraints that transcend the individuality of cities.

More from CNN: Detroit 'the used to be city'

Why is this? We believe these “laws” reflect the commonality and similarity of people and social networks the world over: the connection is us. All cities share the same effective “DNA” because they’re made up of people; cities are fundamentally social networks, complex adaptive systems that behave similarly regardless of geography, political system or economic model.

How does this extend to megacities? The Survey on the Global Agenda showed that across the globe, people recognize their importance, but the jury is out on their future. Will they continue to grow indefinitely without significant improvement of social conditions or will they follow the trajectories of London and New York and develop into major economic engines and modern metropolises? Cities take decades to change, but as we look around the world there are lessons that underscore the importance of really understanding what makes them tick.

China, for example, has embarked on the daunting task of constructing new cities to urbanize 250 million rural residents. Perhaps out of expediency, these cities are being built without deep understanding of the complexity of cities and its connection to socio-economic success. Indeed, we are told that many of these new cities, like classic suburbs, are soulless ghost towns with little sense of community. Cities have an organic quality; they evolve and physically grow out of interactions between people. The great cities of the world facilitate human interaction, creating that indefinable buzz and soul of the city, the wellspring of its innovation and excitement that is a major contributor to its resilience and success economically and socially.

In the United States, Detroit shows us how neglecting diversity can lead to losing that buzz. Detroit was narrowly focused on the automobile industry, which indeed spun off other associated but highly dependent industries, which led to temporary boom. However, because of its lack of business diversity, Detroit was unable to adapt when the aging automobile industry hit tough times.

Cities are quintessential complex adaptive systems constrained by underlying social and infrastructural networks. Diversity is crucial for their resilience, because all of their benefits, successes and problems are highly coupled, interacting – and continually changing.

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soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. chrissy

    Detroits new emergency mgr Kevin Orr should hire Geoffrey West to get Detroit f u n c t io n ing properly. And i can't add "again" because Detroit has never f u n c t ioned properly! First and formost, Detroit has been abused by politicians repeatedly for decades!

    November 15, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Reply
    • Terry

      How true. I have a feeling Detroit will rise again.

      November 15, 2013 at 9:39 pm | Reply
  2. john smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    November 15, 2013 at 9:17 pm | Reply
    • God killer

      Coward

      November 26, 2013 at 7:34 pm | Reply
  3. chrissy

    Me too @ Terry, Now that they elected Mike Duggan as Mayor! Dave Bing just isn't mayor material and i can't think of a single positive thing hes done for Detroit. Well with the exception of no scandals. Oh and no pilfering of money.

    November 16, 2013 at 12:18 am | Reply
  4. Tommy

    HONG KONG – one, once thriveing and flourishing megacity, that Western Societies because of political infightings, false politics and wrong desicions lost to Chinese – what also meant success for the Chinese Communists party – and failure for Washington DC politics – needs to be given back to GREAT BRITAIN.

    November 16, 2013 at 3:47 am | Reply
  5. JAL

    I think there should be a knowledge area to create new words to describe stuff. I don't like any of the words in existence, to describe how beautiful my wife is.

    November 16, 2013 at 6:49 am | Reply
  6. Biggest Washington DC Failures

    No.1: Democrats deliberately destroyed American Auto City – Detroit – for the benefits of j-a-p-a-n-e-s-e auto manufacturers (mazda, honda, suzuki, toyota, ...); No.2: They sold Hong Kong to Chinese, to harm Great Britain – regardless that this was against NATO alliance; No.3: Ms.Hillary damaged US foreign policy on the purpose to harm USA interests.

    November 16, 2013 at 10:24 am | Reply
  7. Daniel Daronda

    The one thing I find hard to understand, is how the federal and state governments within the USA, sat on their behinds and did absolutely nothing, while 1000's of CEO's of US corporations were "giving" all our US jobs to Asia, on a silver platter, and without even a fight!!!!!!!! What were they thinking??????? I guess they were NOT thinking. period. And now that over 50 million jobs have been siphoned off to Asia, in over 200 industries, and there is a huge unemployment situation in USA, now a few politicians are starting to wake up to their new reality, which is a wiped out middle class, hugely reduced tax revenues, and entire cities, like Detroit, on the brink of extinction.......... :(

    November 16, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Reply
  8. chrissy

    So very, very true @ Daniel! And if they were thinking it was only about theirselves! Time for some serious changes in DC! Term limits and age caps on Congressional leaders! Stop ALL foreign financial aid, and an audit of the Federal Reserve while we're at it!

    November 16, 2013 at 9:36 pm | Reply
  9. j. von hettlingen

    It's insane, how cities become megacities. What is the quality of life in a huge concrete jungle?

    November 18, 2013 at 9:22 am | Reply
  10. chrissy

    Lol @ j.vonhettlingen, i can't tell you how many times i've asked myself that very same question. Ive lived my entire life in the great upnorth, and moved here a few years back and am still asking myself that same question. Thank goodness my kids were grown before i moved here! Lmao

    November 18, 2013 at 10:14 am | Reply
  11. Rick McDaniel

    Most people only go to cities, because that's where the jobs are. many would reject that, if they could make a living elsewhere.

    November 18, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Reply
  12. chrissy

    Too true @ Rick, but im thinking still it was to big a price to pay! And the culture shock i went thru...good grief! I might never recover from it lol!

    November 18, 2013 at 8:26 pm | Reply

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