When Mega-Cities Rule the World

The United States has always stood out among developed nations for its sheer size, in terms of territory, population, and urban centers. So perhaps it’s no surprise that we’ve seen the organic emergence of “mega-regions,” sprawling urban centers than span across multiple countries, states, and municipalities, often for hundreds of miles. Needless to say, these megalopolises dominate (or even completely consume) their respective regions, and together they drive the nation’s economic, cultural, social, and political direction.

The following is a map created by the Regional Plan Association, an urban research institute in New York, identifying the eleven main ‘mega-regions’ that are transcending both conventional cities and possibly even states.

To reiterate, the areas are Cascadia, Northern and Southern California, the Arizona Sun Corridor, the Front Range, the Texas Triangle, the Gulf Coast, the Great Lakes, the Northeast, Piedmont Atlantic, and peninsular Florida, my home state (and the only one that is almost entirely consumed by its own distinct mega-region).

Also note how some of these mega-regions spillover into neighboring Mexico and Canada, a transnational blending of urban regions that can be seen in many other developed countries (most notably those in Europe and E.U. specifically. I’d be curious to see a similar map for other parts of the world, especially since developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil are leading the global trend of mass urbanization.

This intriguing map is part of the Regional Plan Association’s America 2050 project,  which proposes that we begin to change our views of urban areas away from being distinct metropolitan areas but instead as interconnected “megaregions” act as distinct economic, social, and infrastructure areas in their own right.

These are the areas in which residents and policymakers are the most likely to have shared common interests and policy goals and would benefit most from co-operation with each other. It’s especially important, because as the Regional Plan Association notes, “Our competitors in Asia and Europe are creating Global Integration Zones by linking specialized economic functions across vast geographic areas and national boundaries with high-speed rail and separated goods movement systems.”

By concentrating investment in these regions and linking them with improved infrastructure, such megaregions enjoy competitive advantages such as efficiency, time savings, and mobility.

The U.S., however, has long focused on individual metro areas and the result has been a “limited capacity” to move goods quickly — this is a major liability threatening long-term economic goals. And while U.S. commuters are opting to drive less, public transportation isn’t even close to commuters’ needs.

The Regional Plan Association proposes aggressive efforts to promote new construction, and finds that even existing lines are in desperate need of large-scale repairs or updates to improve service. In particular, they say the emerging megaregions need transportation modes that can work at distances 200-500 miles across, such as high-speed rail.

While this makes sense, what are the consequences of having such potent sub-national entities emerging separately from already-established state and city limits? Should we, or will we, have to re-draw the map? Will these megaregions become the new powerhouses that influence the political and economic systems of the country at the expense of current representative structures? Will they coalesce into distinct interests that have their own separate political demands from the individual local and state governments that are wholly or partly covered by them?

Interesting questions to consider, especially in light of this being an accelerating global trend with little sign of stopping, let alone reversing. I’m reminded of Parag Khanna’s article, “When Cities Rule the World,” which argued that urban regions will come to dominate the world, ahead of — and often at the expense of —  nation states:

In this century, it will be the city—not the state—that becomes the nexus of economic and political power. Already, the world’s most important cities generate their own wealth and shape national politics as much as the reverse. The rise of global hubs in Asia is a much more important factor in the rebalancing of global power between West and East than the growth of Asian military power, which has been much slower. In terms of economic might, consider that just forty city-regions are responsible for over two-thirds of the total world economy and most of its innovation. To fuel further growth, an estimated $53 trillion will be invested in urban infrastructure in the coming two decades.

Given what we’ve seen with America’s megaregions, the prescient Mr. Khanna (who wrote this article three years ago) has a point. Here are some of his highlights regarding this trend and its implications:

Mega-cities have become global drivers because they are better understood as countries unto themselves. 20 million is no longer a superlative figure; now we need to get used to the nearly 100 million people clustered around Mumbai. Across India, it’s estimated that more than 275 million people will move into India’ s teeming cities over the next two decades, a population equivalent to the U.S. Cairo’s urban development has stretched so far from the city’ s core that it now encroaches directly on the pyramids, making them and the Sphynx commensurately less exotic. We should use the term “gross metropolitan product” to measure their output and appreciate the inequality they generate with respect to the rest of the country. They are markets in their own right, particularly when it comes to the “bottom of the pyramid,” which holds such enormous growth potential.

As cities rise in power, their mayors become ever more important in world politics. In countries where one city completely dominates the national economy, to be mayor of the capital is just one step below being head of state—and more figures make this leap than is commonly appreciated. From Willy Brandt to Jacques Chirac to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, mayors have gone on to make their imprint on the world stage. In America, New York’s former mayor Rudy Giuliani made it to the final cut among Republican presidential candidates, and Michael Bloomberg is rumored to be considering a similar run once his unprecedented third term as Giuliani’s successor expires. In Brazil, José Serra, the governor of the São Paulo municipal region, lost the 2010 presidential election in a runoff vote. Serra rose to prominence in the early 1980s as the planning and economy minister of the state of São Paulo, and made his urban credentials the pillar of his candidacy.

It is too easy to claim, as many city critics do, that the present state of disrepair and pollution caused by many cities means suburbs will be the winner in the never-ending race to create suitable habitats for the world’s billions. In fact, it is urban centers—without which suburbs would have nothing to be “sub” to—where our leading experiments are taking place in zero-emissions public transport and buildings, and where the co-location of resources and ideas creates countless important and positive spillover effects. Perhaps most importantly, cities are a major population control mechanism: families living in cities have far fewer children. The enterprising research surrounding urban best practices is also a source of hope for the future of cities. Organizations like the New Cities Foundation, headquartered in Geneva, connect cities by way of convening and sharing knowledge related to sustainability, wealth creation, infrastructure finance, sanitation, smart grids, and healthcare. As this process advances and deepens, cities themselves become nodes in our global brain.

While most visions of the future imagine mega-corporations to be the entities that transcend nations and challenge them for supremacy, it may be these mega-regions or mega-cities that will be the true powerhouses of the world. In fact, we may even see something of a three-way struggle between all of these globalizing behemoths, as many nation-states also begin to band together to form more powerful blocs.

One things is for certain: the future will be an interesting experiment in testing humanity’s organizational and technological prowess, especially in the midst of worsening environmental conditions and strained national resources, which such mega-regions will no doubt need to overcome. What are your thoughts?

Hat tip to my friend Will for sharing this article with me.

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National Intelligence Council Foresees Transhumanist Future

In the new report, the NIC describes how implants, prosthetics, and powered exoskeletons will become regular fixtures of human life — what could result in substantial improvements to innate human capacities. By 2030, the authors predict, prosthetics should reach the point where they’re just as good — or even better — than organic limbs. By this stage, the military will increasingly rely on exoskeletons to help soldiers carry heavy loads. Servicemen will also be administered psychostimulants to help them remain active for longer periods.

Many of these same technologies will also be used by the elderly, both as a way to maintain more youthful levels of strength and energy, and as a part of their life extension strategies.

Brain implants will also allow for advanced neural interface devices — what will bridge the gap between minds and machines. These technologies will allow for brain-controlled prosthetics, some of which may be able to provide “superhuman” abilities like enhanced strength, speed — and completely new functionality altogether.

Other mods will include retinal eye implants to enable night vision and other previously inaccessible light spectrums. Advanced neuropharmaceuticals will allow for vastly improved working memory, attention, and speed of thought.

“Augmented reality systems can provide enhanced experiences of real-world situations,” the report notes, “Combined with advances in robotics, avatars could provide feedback in the form of sensors providing touch and smell as well as aural and visual information to the operator.”

But as with any technological development, there is a caveat:

But as the report notes, many of these technologies will only be available to those who are able to afford them. The authors warn that it could result in a two-tiered society comprising enhanced and nonenhanced persons, a dynamic that would likely require government oversight and regulation.

Smartly, the report also cautions that these technologies will need to be secure. Developers will be increasingly challenged to prevent hackers from interfering with these devices.

Lastly, other technologies and scientific disciplines will have to keep pace to make much of this work. For example, longer-lasting batteries will improve the practicality of exoskeletons. Progress in the neurosciences will be critical for the development of future brain-machine interfaces. And advances in flexible biocompatible electronics will enable improved integration with cybernetic implants.

Read the entire report here

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The Venus Project

From the BBC comes a brief but interesting look into the Venus Project,  an  organization that aims to restructure society through an economic and infrastructural system in which, goods, services and information are free within the context of resource sustainability and availability (e.g. a “resource-based economy). 

This utopian idea was begun in 1980 by self-educated structural engineer, industrial designer, and futurist Jacque Fresco. He’s been described variably as an eccentric, idealist, visionary, crackpot, and charlatan, and his ideas have received as much praise as they have criticism.  The BBC article linked to above pretty much sums it up this way:

Is it possible to create a radically different society? One where material possessions are unnecessary, where buildings are created in factories, where mundane jobs are automated?

Would you want to live in a city where the main aim of daily life is to improve personal knowledge, enjoy hobbies, or solve problems that could be common to all people in order to improve the standard of living for everyone?

Some may think it is idealistic, but 97-year old architect Jacque Fresco is convinced his vision of the future is far better than how we live today.

I agree that his vision of the future is far better than what we have now. But so have many other such hypothetical concepts throughout history. Is his idea credible? Can it really be implemented in our lifetimes, if at all? What are your thoughts?