The look at the ten trends that will shape the new decade continues today with the next three trends on the list. The series began on Monday with a post on the hidden force that shapes our times: the acceleration of world history. On Tuesday I posted on economic turbulence and proliferation of disturbing new weapons and weapon systems. Today the series turns to consider three more of the top global trends of the 2010s: The Rise of Pantopolis, the Small ‘D’ Democratic Revolution, and the Disaggregation of World Politics.
Global Trend #3. The Rise of Panopolis
2010 will stand out as a landmark in world history for one simple reason: according to UNESCO estimates, as of this year the majority of the world’s population lives in cities. This is the first time in world history that has been the case; the increasing and continuing trend toward urbanization is going to shape the next decade — and indeed the rest of the first half of the century.
The urbanization trend is accelerating. The percentage of the world’s population living in cities grew by 3.6 percentage points between 1990 and 2000, 3.9 points between 2000 and 2010 and is projected to grow by 4.3 points in the next ten years. If UNESCO has its projections right, the world is now entering its ‘peak urbanization’ rate when the vast rural-to-urban migration is at its fastest. Fifty years ago two thirds of the world’s population lived in the countryside; fifty years from now three quarters of the world’s people will live in cities.
Almost all of this is happening in what we still call the third world where populations are still growing quickly and the urbanization process still has a long ways to go. Within the third world, much of the change will happen in the poorest countries; the percentage of the growing population that lives in cities is expected rise by more than 5 points in the least developed countries in the next ten years, more than double the increase for the most developed countries. The next ten years will see the urban population of Sub-Saharan Africa grow by 135 million people; in the developing world, generally urban populations are expected to rise by about 667 million in the next ten years. By 2020 eighty of the world’s 100 largest cities will be in developing countries.
These cities aren’t just bigger than the old ones. They are different. By 2020 cities like Lagos, Karachi, Delhi and Jakarta won’t just contain 20 million or more people. They will contain every level of human life from the unimaginably wealthy who helicopter over the teeming streets below and jaunt around the world to the illiterate garbage pickers haunting the fringes of the great urban slums. These new cities will deserve the name ‘panopolis,’ or ‘total city’: they will include the full range of the human condition and all the world’s poverty and wealth can be found in them. Moreover, thanks to the continuing explosive growth in communications technology, the inhabitants of these cities will be plugged in as never before. Even the poorest will have access, however fleeting and partial, to the internet, broadcasters and other sources of information. The poor will know a lot about the rich.
These cities will generally be multicultural, multireligious and multilinguistic as people from many ethnic and linguistic backgrounds desert the rural economy. The total cities of the near future will be tinderboxes ready to explode into any imaginable kind of class, ethnic or religious strife. Culturally, they are the incubators of new forms of society, new music, new religions and new ideas that we can only guess at.
The challenges of governing and regulating panopolis will occupy governments in many countries, and the challenges should not be underestimated. These teeming cities will need secure and clean water supplies, power generation and distribution, health services, infrastructure development and on and on. Urban populations are usually better organized politically and more prone to rapid action than rural ones; the revolutionary politics of the twenty-first century will likely take shape in these cities. So too will many of the epidemics and new forms of crime and criminal organizations emerge from these explosively-growing and poorly-understood cities of the new century.
There is another sense in which we can speak of the rise of panopolis. For the first time ever, humanity is now predominantly an urban species. The cities in which most of us live are increasingly becoming a single world city–tied together by communications networks of unprecedented (and rapidly increasing) strength and complexity. That world city is the ultimate panopolis: a vast urban complex that contains within itself virtually the entire range of the human condition. The world used to be a garden with occasional villages and towns; in the 2010s the balance shifts and humanity’s world will become a city with occasional parks.
Much of the history of the twenty-first century will be the history of panoplis; the 2010s will see only the early stages of something that will grow and become more influential and more complex. Even so, what happens in panopolis will help shape the decade into which we are so casually moving.
One thing to remember about them: the miserably poor and insecure citizens who make up the majority of the uberstadt population is very different from the rural poor they left behind. They know how the rich live, for one thing; they see the gap between wealth and poverty that the rural poor can only imagine. To see is to want; the world will have to find ways to deal with this.