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Megacities: can global society tame the beast?

Megacities: can global society tame the beast?

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With a rapidly urbanizing global population, megacities are an undeniable part of our future. How will we manage them? Industry thought leaders react at the Clinton Global Initiative.

NEW YORK CITY -- Former U.S. president Bill Clinton looked out past the glaring white lights, into the hundreds of faces in the audience, and breathed in deeply.

"This is the shape of the modern world." He purses his lips. Then he shuffles his feet.

Clinton is here at the Sheraton Hotel for this year's annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, and he is taking his final metaphorical lap before closing the day's proceedings.

The topic at hand: the rapidly urbanizing world population and the megacities -- and mega headaches -- that have emerged as a result.

Singling out Brazil as the "most exciting and environmentally-committed country in the world," Clinton said the growth of megacities could usher in a new era in which the decision isn't green or not, but what kind of green -- forcing leaders to make difficult decisions as to the path their leaders should take to a more sustainable future.

In Brazil, which gets the vast majority of its energy from renewable resources, that could mean restricting the development of a renewable source such as sugarcane-derived cellulosic ethanol. The crop's affinity for the soil traditionally used to grow soybeans or raise cattle means the rise of biofuels could displace existing agricultural development, pushing it deeper into the precious Amazonian rainforest.

A clean energy source at the expense of one of the most ecologically diverse places on Earth.

"It's a high-class problem, but it's a tale of dueling environmentalists," Clinton said. "More and more of these choices will have to be made as megacities claim the Earth."

Joining him on stage was another all-star cast of industry leaders to debate the role of the megacity and how policy can manage its growth: Yang Jeichi, China's minister of foreign affairs; James Mwangi, chief executive of Equity Bank Limited; Luis Ubiñas, president of the Ford Foundation; Carlos Slim Helú, Mexican business magnate and the richest man in the world; Gavin Newsom, lieutenant governor of California; and Janette Sadik-Khan, transportation commissioner of New York City. CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo moderated the panel.

PARADIGM SHIFT

To kick things off, the panel tackled the biggest urbanizing example of them all: China. The nation now counts 120 cities with a population of more than one million, seeing its urban population skyrocket from 18 percent to 50 percent of the country. With 660 million already living in cities, China expects another 240 million to join them within the next two decades.

The benefit of the megacity is manifold. It generates more consumption, driving the economy; it helps modernize infrastructure; it leaves rural areas with more natural resources; it helps balance the regional dispersement of population.

"We try to improve the quality of life of the people in the cities because we think that the development of the cities is vital to the social and economic development of the country," Jeichi said. To do so, considerable policy reforms have been made in the last 30 years to enable this.

But China's not the only one. Mwangi said sub-Saharan Africa is also seeing rapid migration of young, educated people away from rural areas, and the region's infrastructure is struggling to accommodate the influx.

"The population is growing faster than the city's capacity of infrastructure," he said.

Big cities are the consequence of modernity, Slim suggested -- and modernity dictates that density is a more efficient way to provide new technology.

"What makes a big city possible is that the population all has [access to] public services," he said, offering highway construction, water, electricity, telecommunications and healthcare as examples. "It's important that all these services be profitable."

THE TECH FACTOR

Slim added that technology is a defining difference between humans and other creatures in the Animal Kingdom. With each new technological movement, it's like a genetic mutation that enables humans to adapt to survive.

"Now with computers, we are moving at the speed of light, instead of the speed of horse," he said.

Newsom rattled off a barrage of statistics showing how cities with populations of more than one million people exploded in the last 60 years, growing from just 83 worldwide to more than 400.

"The challenge is self-evident: how can people live together…prosper together?" he asked, noting the value of human capital with regard to infrastructure. "This is our fate and future and we have to reconcile it from the human level because it is a remarkable challenge."

As the transportation commissioner for the most populous city in the United States, Sadik-Khan offered an intimate view of achieving success at eye level. Facing a tight budget in a down economy, Sadik-Khan said she chose to deploy newer, more efficient city buses that were cheaper than a new subway line and install bicycle lanes throughout the city to better balance modes of transportation in the pedestrian-friendly but car-clogged city.

"We closed Broadway and we made it better for people to walk around," she said. Despite criticism from motorists, "it turned out to make it better for business," helping glittery Times Square become a top-ranked retail location in the U.S.

"It didn't cost a lot," she said. "We did it with a lot of paint. And paint brushes."

The problem? City policies are often in direct conflict with their own interests, Ubiñas said.

Sadik-Khan agreed, saying that such policies have been "a barrier" in New York.

"A lot of the federal guidance has really been written for Kansas," she said. "Redesigning our streets so that they work for the millions of people that live in them requires a different approach. What we've started to do is really rewrite the book. Cities are the incubators of innovation."

But with 75 percent of the nation's gross domestic product coming from cities, Newsom said those governance hurdles must be overcome to ensure that they remain economic engines.

"Cities are laboratories of innovation. States are laboratories of democracy," he said. "There's an iterative process, a learning capacity in cities that's remarkable. And technology is what makes that scale."

Newsom cited the tremendous opportunity to use a "massive amount of data" to inform predictive policing efforts, integrated traffic patterns, and even congestion parking in the city where he served as mayor, San Francisco.

"There are sensors in the on-street meters, and you can determine availability using the app SFpark," he said. "This is the future of cities. Technology is enabling that."

ONE CITY, ONE COMMUNITY

But the megacity need not be a one-way street, devouring all resources in its path. Density can help enrich the greater region, and foster the development of satellite cities whose residents enjoy the services of their larger peer without the tradeoffs that extreme density requires.

"There has to be overarching, overall strategy of planning," Jeichi said. "Around the big cities, we need to build up the small and medium sized cities. So instead of having one megacity, you have a cluster."

To wit, China's 90,000 kilometers of railways, 70,000 kilometers of highways and 7,000 kilometers of high-speed rail track have only encouraged residents to move away from the country's largest cities.

"You have seen a mushrooming of small and medium sized cities, away from megacities, he said.

But infrastructure isn't just the pipes in the ground or the wires strung along poles. Just like the density of a megacity optimizes the dispersement of local services, it too can help foster a vibrant social community.

"It is very important to ensure social security for our people, particularly the aging population," Jeichi said.

Of the 120 cities in China whose population is more than 1 million, a host of new culture facilities have emerged, Jeichi said. New museums, theaters, even children's libraries have been an unexpected benefit of having so many people live so close together.

"The cities, they are very proud of what they have achieved, not only on the economic side but also on the cultural side, the social side," he said. "This is the kind of road we want to chart in the future."

But how do you give a voice to all those people? Despite the rapid proliferation of wireless telecommunications networks in developing and developed nations alike, elected officials must still strive to empower the people they serve, Newsom said.

"It's no longer a vending machine government, where you stick a dollar in and get aerospace and defense and if you don't like it, you shake it. Now you've got government truly, figuratively and literally in the cloud."

Sadik-Khan emphasized that technology is no replacement for good governance.

"It really is important that we continue to do face-to-face meetings with human beings," she said. "Not everybody has a smartphone."

THE INNOVATION QUESTION

And what of innovation? How can elected officials take advantage of the fact that their economic engines are on the path to grow bigger and hungrier?

It starts with community, Sadik-Khan said.

"You see great dividends when you marry economic sustainability with livability," she said. "We need to create a city that people want to live in, because talent today can move anywhere."

Education is also key, Newsom said.

"Not just STEM, but you got to invest in STEAM," he said. "You've got to invest in imagination, which is the "A" -- arts."

Jeichi said cities must exchange ideas so as not to repeat each others' errors and more quickly benefit from new technology.

"I believe that cities represent the future," he said. "Better city, better life -- we need to do more in that regard."

Ubiñas said it makes good economic sense.

"Cities are cheaper. It is much less expensive to deliver government services, to deliver rights…if people are closer together."

Whatever the reason, change is not for the faint of heart, Sadik-Khan said. It's important to establish a plan for what you want to do and share that so people understand why you're making decisions. The reality is that not everyone will like the changes you want to implement, she said.

"I don't think we have a choice. We have to make it work," she said. "If cities are the future of the planet -- and they are -- we have to succeed."

Photos: Todd France/CGI

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure