Wednesday, June 28, 2006
Sustainability requires comprehension of cause-effect relationships at many levels, and more often than not these include macro systems. Las week we read that 2007 will be the first year in human history that more people will live in urban areas rather than in rural surroundings, according to the last report from UN-Habitat (United Nations Human Settlement Program) State of the World's Cities Report 2006/7 released in New York.
For centuries, human beings decided to abandon rural areas in search for a more stable and empowered life. As result of this continuous flow, the geography of the planet is changing at fast pace all over. If today, just Tokyo is considered a metacity (pdf) hosting more than 20 million inhabitants, by 2020 the list will grow with eight more cities, seven of them in countries with developing economies. According to the report, the list is completed with Mumbay & Delhi (India), Mexico, Sao Paolo (Brasil), Daka (Bangladesh), Yakarta (Indonesia), and Lagos (Nigeria). Currently, one out of three city inhabitant lives in slums or areas where minimum public services are not available.
What are the consequences of this migratory movement? Two mega-trends can be observed:
Foreseen decline of world's population
We just experienced the first doubling of world population (from 3.3 billion in 1992 to 6.5 today),and we know that it will be also the last one. It is expected that by 2050 we'll be between 7.5 and 9 billion inhabitants, and then the rates will start to decrease. 2.1 children are required per women to ensure population replacement levels and current rates in urbanized nations host an average of 1.56. Cities empower women who, in many cases spot opportunities for self development which may explain the decline. Soon we'll be less people, living in highly dense urban areas. Some may argue this presents a good opportunity to do some system organization and address a sustainable future: less people may require less resources used more efficiently, isn't? Wrong, remember; "money makes the world go around"
Increase in purchasing power
The resulting outcome from the previously described situation leads to an scenario where purchasing power increases dramatically. The move from the rural area to the city offers unlimited opportunities for self development to newcomers; when you don't depend on changing weather conditions to maintain yourself and you can ensure a stable income, it's possible to save, invest and consume. The bottom line is that a legion of new consumers is growing globally, at first stage acquiring basic functionality and later on moving towards the acquisition of experience and intangible values attached to products.
The increase of new consumers with higher purchasing power is a fact which we cannot fight against. Keeping this in mind, can we find feasible solutions fitting in? A good way to address the issue may be by observing the drivers (population composition & purchasing power), understanding how the cause-effect relationships of the system work, and setting priorities.
We were highly inspired by City Planet, an article by Stewart Brand. To download a copy, visit Strategy + Business. You may need to register (free)
Get a glimpse of the life in the slums of Calcutta with The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre.
If you prefer a movie, check City Of God (Cidade De Deus) by Fernando Meirelles, which takes the favelas of Rio de Janeiro as scenery for its development.