Cities Now On the Third Wave


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Breaking waveAround 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, while at the same time 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 is the best bet to eradicate 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 are driving tomorrow’s cities. The technologies are all based on greater amounts and more usefulness of information. 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.

Next week (assuming there is a next): Cities, the Gift that Keeps on Giving.

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons; credit Shalom Jacobovitz


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

Join the Conversation

Ranjith Annepu
December 18, 2012

Good to see a ratio of 40:200 on the timescale of this wave of urbanization. It is indeed unprecedented. Its impact on the ground and on people can be seen in this sequence of satellite images from the outskirts of an Indian City -…

Dan Hoornweg
December 18, 2012

Thanks. Great graphics!

Allen J Scott
December 28, 2012

The world of the early 21st century already looks dramatically different from the world of the late 20th century. Globalization is bringing many different and far-flung areas into greatly intensified relations of competition and cooperation with one another. The First, Second, and Third Worlds have gone. New kinds of interpenetrating political institutions are multiplying at many different scales. Economic relations of production and consumption are being revolutionized by new digital technologies. Cities and their surrounding regions, contrary to many earlier predictions, continue to grow and spread.
In my new book, "A World in Emergence" (Edward Elgar, publisher) my goal is to work out how these different elements are constituted and how they shape the formation of the contemporary geographic landscape. The chief focus of the book is on the enormous resurgence of cities all over the globe in the last few decades, in significant degree as a function of the recent worldwide intensification and spread of revivified forms of capitalism. This resurgence and the new regionalism that accompanies it will almost certainly come to be one of the defining features of the geography of the 21st century.
I suggest in the book that a distinctive new form of capitalism has been coming into existence since about the 1980s on the basis of microelectronic technologies and the ways in which they drive out standardized forms of work and encourage a vast expansion in types of human capital based on the cognitive and cultural assets of the labor force. Accordingly, I refer to this new order of things as “cognitive-cultural capitalism”, i.e. a system that revolves in major degree around production sectors like software and technology-intensive industry, business and financial services, fashion-oriented sectors, and cultural products such as music, film, and electronic games.
The cognitive-cultural economy is bringing into existence a distinctive new historical wave of urbanization and spatial development, focused especially on large metropolitan areas or global city-regions. Most of these city-regions are located in North America, Western Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region, but other parts of the world are also subject to its influence in various ways. With the rise of this global network or mosaic of city-regions a reorganization of older national urban hierarchies into a more integrated global system is steadily coming about.
As this new developmental wave deepens and widens, so the emerging global network of city-regions has started to override the old core-periphery system that has hitherto characterized much of the historical geography of the modern world. Global city-regions on every continent are now emerging as major economic motors and political actors on the world stage. Indeed, according to the United Nations, more than half of the world’s population today lives in cities, and up to three-quarters of all economic activity occurs in the same centers. To be sure, not all cities participate equally in the new capitalism, and there remain numerous parts of the world where urban life is still resolutely focused on more traditional forms of social and economic existence. That said, these other cities are also sites through which developmental impulses are strongly channeled, and more and more of them are now acceding to the global mosaic, just as cities like Seoul, Taipei, Bangkok, and Mexico City have done before them.
At the same time, the internal social and physical characteristics of the cities that participate most insistently in this new trend are undergoing dramatic transformation. For one thing, the long-established economic base of these cities in manufacturing is steadily diminishing, and in many cases has effectively disappeared, at least in its older fordist forms. This means, too, that the traditional white-collar/blue-collar mode of socio-spatial stratification in these cities is waning rapidly. Instead, as the cognitive-cultural economy continues its rise, an alternative kind of urban social stratification is coming into being. This consists, on the one side, of an upper stratum of highly qualified elite workers, and, on the other side, of a lower stratum comprising a growing fraction of low-wage service-oriented workers. The latter fraction increasingly provides supporting services for the elite, either directly (e.g. via domestic labor of many different kinds, including child care) or indirectly (e.g. via the maintenance of urban functions such as janitorial work, taxi driving, and restaurant services). For this reason, we might say that a sort of new servile class has also come into being in cities where the cognitive-cultural economy now dominates.
An important corollary of the rise and geographical concentration of the cognitive-cultural economy is a greatly intensified process of gentrification and aestheticization in major world cities. One manifestation of this trend is the continued and extensive colonization of formerly blue-collar inner-city neighborhoods by members of the cognitive-cultural elite. This is all the more evident given that so many of the jobs performed by the elite are concentrated in central business districts, thereby increasing the demand for appropriate housing nearby. Another manifestation is in the increasing intensification and aestheticization of land uses that is occurring in response to the build-up of high-level cognitive-cultural production activities and associated cultural infrastructures in these same central city areas. Notable examples of this phenomenon are London’s Docklands, the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.
The overall result of these intersecting processes is an emerging cosmopolitan system of gigantic urban centers, and, as such, this system is steadily taking its place as one of the more potent and visible elements of the new world order. Each of the city-regions that make up the system represents an important concentration of economic and political activity, but each of them is also riven by social conflicts, rooted above all in the deepening inequalities that they harbor. Unfortunately, political capacities for dealing with the multiple problems generated by this state of affairs remain woefully underdeveloped. Equally, strategic institutional arrangements for more efficient supply of public goods and for building competitive advantage across individual city-regions also largely remain in a primitive stage of development.
My prediction is that in the end, major global city-regions will be forced, by reason of their mounting internal and external predicaments, to deal in a forthright manner with these issues. This will also greatly boost their role as major centers of economic and political power in the global order of the 21st century.