The infrastructure of globalization created by man unites us as a species more than rival nations divide us, global strategist Parag Khanna told those attending the ULI Asia Pacific Summit in Shanghai in June.
The development of megacities will characterize the next evolution of urbanization, said Khanna, a CNN global contributor and senior research fellow in the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
He described the global network of oil pipelines, high-speed rail links, and telecommunications cables as “an exoskeleton we have been building around the planet.” This “functional geography” is as important as physical or political geography, he argued.
In his latest book, Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization, Khanna writes, “We’re accelerating into a future shaped less by countries than by connectivity. Mankind has a new maxim—connectivity is destiny—and the most connected powers, and people, will win.”
An important element of this connected future will be the growth of megacities, with populations topping 10 million. Khanna used a series of maps to illustrate where these cities are growing—in some cases across borders. For example, he asserted that “Abu-Dubai” is emerging as the cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates grow together.
In West Africa, a coastal urban area is growing between Lagos and Benin City in Nigeria, crossing national borders and growing toward Ivory Coast. “It won’t be one city with one name,” Khanna said, but it will be a connected urban agglomeration nonetheless. In Asia, China has a number of burgeoning megacities, such as in the Pearl River Delta, while Tokyo and Osaka in Japan are growing together.
The city is more fundamental to civilization than the nation-state, Khanna argued. “Cities are our most ancient social infrastructural fact. They are far more real than borders,” he said. “We have been living in cities for 5,000 to 6,000 years, long before the emergence of nations. Mankind is becoming a global networked civilization amongst these cities.”
A map of the world’s most densely populated areas demonstrated the importance of urbanization. “Urban archipelagos define humanity,” he said. “We are a coastal, urban species.”
A significant amount of future growth will take place in the approximately 50 largest megacities on the planet, which will also be more resilient to economic shocks, he predicted. Khanna noted that in the United States, New York City and Los Angeles recovered faster from the global financial crisis than did smaller cities.
However, Khanna argued that in a number of countries, a single city dominates to the detriment of other smaller urban areas. “Indonesia is a nation of 200 million people, but Jakarta generates most of its GDP,” he pointed out. “Worldwide, there is not enough investment in secondary cities. We need to be investing so much more in secondary cities, harnessing populations. There is currently too much dependence on one city, which increases vulnerability.”
Khanna pointed out that China and India are trying to diversify. China has said it wants to be a country of 26 megacity hubs, with all remote and peripheral areas connected to those 26 hubs. India has also designated 100 cities as key geographic and population centers, making significant investments in high-quality infrastructure so that the quality of life can improve and more people can efficiently work in those economic hubs.
Overall, the world needs to spend more on infrastructure to improve connectivity between and within cities, he said. “The greatest challenge is that we are not building sufficient infrastructure to confront the volatility that we have in the climate and in the economy.”
His overarching message was positive, however, arguing that urbanization and connectivity promote peaceful collaboration and competition. “A city doesn’t want to conquer a country on the other side of the world. It wants to trade,” he said. “Throughout history, the great cities of the world have been open, tolerant, inclusive, and investing in their people. And, of course, that means investing in infrastructure.”
This “pax urbanica” can grow without conflict, he concluded, because “connectivity is not a zero-sum game.”