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The Next Frontier

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Ours is the century of cities. Already by 2010, 50.5 percent of the world’s population was living in urban areas. In a few decades that number will rise to 70 percent. During the 21st century, the world as we know it will be defined by the tempo, geography and challenges of city life. Cities will be hubs of commerce, culture and technology. This is not entirely new to world history. Going back to medieval burghers of northern Europe and grand cities of China, India and the early Islamic empires, cities have been where culture and innovation have shaped civilization. But the pace and manner in which the realities of city life will define politics, economics, global relations, climate change, energy consumption and integration of our world into one shared global reality is new. It represents the next frontier in human development.

According to a McKinsey Global Institute study, close to half of global gross domestic product in 2010 came from only 362 cities, with more than 20 percent of global GDP coming from 187 North American cities alone. Cities account for most of the world’s food consumption, energy use, and climate-changing and environment-impacting industrial activity.

Not all cities are equal in deciding the direction of change. Today, megacities such as Cairo, Jakarta, Karachi and Mumbai confront a particular mix of poverty, congestion and political conflict. And aspiring “smart cities,” ranging from New York to London, Doha to Singapore, contend with the challenges of adapting human life and economic activity to nimble applications of technology—organizing urban life around clean energy and fiber optics and automation.

Asia’s dizzying pace of economic growth and equally rapid urbanization means cities in the East will in large measure be trendsetters in defining how the world addresses critical urban issues such as traffic, pollution, energy use, allocation of space, mass transit and governance. By 2025, 99 new cities are expected to enter the top 600 by population, all from the developing world and overwhelmingly—72 of them—from China. Add to that the urbanization of India and Indonesia, followed by country after country across Asia.

By 2025, the world’s top 600 cities will be home to an estimated 220 million more people of working age and will account for more than 30 percent of the expansion of the potential global workforce. Almost all this increase is likely to be in fast-growing countries of the developing world, now bundled together as emerging markets—and half of it in the leading cities of China and India. According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, a prime example of the growth of cities in Asia is found in Indonesia. Today, 53 percent of the population in cities is producing 74 percent of GDP. By 2030, 71 percent of city populations will produce 86 percent of GDP. This remarkable hike in the urban dwellers’ productivity will be key to growth across the country and region.

The Promise of Urbanization

Urbanization is fraught with new challenges. At the same time, it is full of promise. Urbanization not only will propel economic productivity but also will provide an impetus to resolve the most vexing problems of our time.

Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, is investing heavily in creating a truly “green city,” where automation fueled by clean energy will drastically reduce the environmental impact of urban development. Doha, London and Rio de Janeiro are defining the meaning of smart cities, where new models of traffic management could reduce congestion and pollution, enhance residents’ living experience and increase commerce. Smart cities are also all about new approaches to city management, starting with how municipal authorities are trained, organized and deployed. The term “smart city” is a euphemism for 21st-century efficient government. The concept began in cities, and cities are setting the standards.

Cities are expanding on the back of population growth but also migration—from rural to urban areas and across international borders. Mumbai and Karachi have at different points been home to tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of Middle Easterners, Bangladeshis, Nepalese and Sri Lankans. Iraqi refugees have transformed Amman and Damascus. Migration has changed the character of Amsterdam, London and Paris.

Cities are a political launching pad. From New York City Mayor Michael _Bloomberg (see page 12) to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo_an of Turkey, who started his political rise as mayor of Istanbul, a new breed of global leaders is shaping national and international politics and economic relations. In Iraq, the Sadrist movement—the country’s most powerful political movement and the fountainhead for some of its notable radical forces—was born in the conurbation of Sadr City, a sprawling slum area of more than 2 million people that sits in the midst of the capital city of Baghdad. In Pakistan, the most visible ethnic party in the country, the United National Movement, better known by its Urdu acronym, MQM, is a product of Karachi’s cheek-by-jowl congestion and the intense competition for turf and resources. The party was virtually formed out of street clashes.

There are cities whose character is changed completely by migration and growth. Mumbai grew during the British period with strong Gujarati influence, and migration has turned it into a Marathi-controlled polyglot. Then there is the example of Dubai, named a “city of the future” by FDI Magazine, where the overwhelming number of residents are expatriates and migrant workers from many countries, plying their trade in Dubai but with no permanent roots—for that reason, Dubai is also a predominantly male city.

Such political formations attest to the power of urban politics but also divide cities into competing neighborhoods, quarters and wards that then compete with one another for control of the city as if they were regions of a country—and in many cases do define national politics as well. The civil war in Lebanon effectively divided Beirut into ethnic and religious quarters, each under the control of a different ethnic or religious national party.

Cities can aggravate ethnic tensions by putting competing ethnic groups in close quarters. Although ethnic and religious conflagration has been an ongoing menace to Indian cities, it can change the dynamics of ethnic politics in important ways. Today, more Kurds live in Istanbul than any other city in Turkey, including in the country’s Kurdish zone. And there are more than a million Kurds living in Baghdad. Those urban Kurds remain attached to their ethnic heritage, but their economic interests or political choices are not as easily discernable as those of Kurds living in small towns and villages of the Kurdish regions.

Urban development can change a country’s politics. Since its creation, Pakistan’s electoral politics have been dominated by feudalism. Attempts at land reform failed, but now urbanization is changing the balance of power between city and countryside in significant ways. Landlords are still there, and they still wield considerable power. However, cities’ growing influence on the economy and, more important, in parliamentary elections has loosened the grip of feudalism. Urbanization is, in essence, producing the political effects of land reform.

There was a time when we thought of cities as places where national culture was formed, melting pots where new migrants were socialized into modern ideas. Nowadays, cities blend diverse ideas, new and old; they are no longer about uniformity but diversity, managing pluralism. There is a greater clash of ideas, sometimes spilling into the street. At the same time, there is more opportunity for creative construction of new ideas. London has embraced that promise, fashioning itself as the capital of the world not so it can once again lord over global commerce and politics, but because as a blend of East and West—Asia, Africa, Europe and America—the city represents the world and symbolizes globalization. One visible emblem of this claim is London’s eclectic music scene, combining, for instance, Somali, Punjabi and Swahili influences that come together in the same Southall neighborhood of the city. Paris and New York as well as Dubai, Los Angeles, Singapore and Toronto are embracing pluralism as a constructive idea, a comparative advantage that can propel them to the top.

Cities were once bastions of secularism. Now the rising tide of religion across the world, with a puritanical, evangelical and political flavor, is associated with cities. Hindu nationalism was a creature of urban Indian politics. Many of its cadres earned their stripes in Mumbai politics and then in struggles for power in other Indian cities before they grew into a full-fledged national movement. Nowhere is the connection between religion, politics and cities clearer than in the Muslim world. From Morocco to Indonesia, Islamism has grown as a triumphant ideology of power with claim to national politics. Islamism emerged first in urban centers of Cairo, Kuala Lumpur, Lahore and Tehran and then deepened its support by addressing problems of city life that secular states had neglected.

Cities as Global Players

Cities are a microcosm of our world; they are also windows onto its future. We have studied international relations for a long time through the prism of nation-states and ebbs and flows of free markets, and we will continue to take seriously those fundamental units of international economics and world politics. But it is increasingly evident that what happens in cities and between cities will shape the world of the future. Cities will mandate new linkages of commerce and ways of negotiating global transactions. Mayors will be the statesmen of the future, and pacts they forge among one another will complement global treaties and regimes that today govern international affairs. We have to understand the dynamic of this development, the challenges it will put before us and the potential it holds for humanity.

In the pages to follow, we will do just that. You will read about megacities and smart cities, prospering ones and struggling ones, cities grappling with globalization and burgeoning commerce, and those battling congestion, pollution and logistical bottlenecks. We will canvas the issues confronting cities that are experimenting with new technologies and those that are forging new definitions of culture and politics. You will read about civil societies and universities in the life of cities, and the role cities play in diverse regions of the world, from Latin America to Africa to Asia. You will learn what scholars and analysts have to say and get the views of mayors from the global cities where SAIS resides.

This issue of SAISPHERE is path-breaking and timely. It looks at our world from a new angle. And that, after all, is what SAIS is about. We pride ourselves on our deep knowledge of various aspects of international affairs and our leadership role in identifying new paradigms of thinking about the world. The articles in this issue of SAISPHERE showcase academic excellence at SAIS and, equally important, attest to the kind of intellectual entrepreneurship and trend-setting interdisciplinary approach to international relations that distinguishes SAIS and sets its students, faculty and alumni apart as the best of breed in every walk of life.

 


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