By Adam Bates

Anyone who walks or drives in London today will experience the disruption caused by the replacement of old cast-iron Victorian water pipes with shiny new plastic ones. The work is costing hundreds of millions of pounds. At the same time we are seeing plans for new Tube-lines, a shift in behaviour with more people using public transport for more journeys and plans for yet more transport facilities like Crossrail and perhaps even a new airport all being proposed. Yet all of this is happening in a city whose population has only gradually increased; in 1900 from 6.5 million, to today about 7.8 million — an increase of 1.3 million in a 100 years. It is amazing to think that in 1900 London was the world’s biggest city … life moves on quickly.

In China, the shift of people to towns and cities is dramatically different. When Deng Xiaoping and his reformers took power in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the urban population was about 21 percent or just over 200 million. The Chinese National Bureau of Statistics reported that in 2011 the urban population passed 50 percent for the first time in history, about 690 million. McKinsey forecasts that by 2030 there will be one billion people living in China’s cities by 2030 led by 221 cities with populations of over one million. This is the biggest migration of humanity in history.

This is not just a Chinese story. In the rest of Asia and Africa, other countries are expected to reach their respective tipping points, that is when their populations are more urban than rural, in 2023 and 2030.

Most commentators say there is a positive link between urbanisation and economic growth. I think most of us would agree that any country will benefit economically from moving, say, subsistence farmers from the countryside to a factory. The movement is not simply driven by government, more that people’s aspirations for a ‘better life’ is unstoppable.

For these growing cities to be habitable there will need to be tremendous improvements in infrastructure. The list seems endless: energy efficient
construction, water (not cast-iron pipes!), sanitation (sadly lacking in many cities), electricity, waste, transport, health, public safety, air pollution and phone and internet connectivity. Those of us living in London understand the challenge of moving large numbers of people to and from their homes.

The opportunities for companies to be part of this transformation are massive, and that is too small a word. Whether it is designing new and innovative ways of moving people, smart use of power, new types of mobile phone networks, smarter health treatment using remote sensors on patients, food production in urban areas, better designs of energy efficient apartments or finally, the use of mobile payments — all are designed to make our lives easier.

There are some startling examples. Masdar city in Abu Dhabi is a new centre which is focusing on providing the highest quality of life and work environment with the lowest environmental footprint, in a commercially viable manner. Saudi Arabia is creating six new cities focusing on diversifying the Kingdom’s economy and creating employment. In this globalised world it perhaps is not surprising to see a Helsinki architect proposing the design of the MenTouGou eco valley community to the Chinese government or an Italian consortium bringing inspiration from Leonardo de Vinci studies for 15th Century Milan in Tianjin in China or the development of the Langfang Eco-Smart city near Beijing using biomimicry to design walkways and canals to circulate and conserve water.

The challenge for many expanding cities is that if the infrastructure falls behind the growth, slums expand and the gap between the rich and poor widens. While some revolutions in the past started in the countryside, today it is dissatisfied urban dwellers that start most movements. Hence, there is a real pressing need for much more innovation in approaching the challenges outlined above. The United Nations recognises all of these challenges. In its Rio+20 conference later this year “sustainable cities” is one of its key themes.

The question I leave for readers who have managed to reach the end of my historical geographic and demographic analysis is: is your company trying to be part of this change or is it more like the Victorian cast-irons pipes slowly being replaced by more modern models?

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