Mass Urbanization Could Lead to Unprecedented Human Creativity -- But Only if We Do it Right

Successful global urbanization could lead to a profoundly-changed world in just a few decades, where age-old human problems of extreme poverty, famine, disease and conflict would be greatly alleviated -- if not eradicated.
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As billions of people across the world choose to live in cities, urbanization is changing the human condition irreversibly. From small-scale, intimate societies based on subsistence economies experiencing slow change, humans are now increasingly part of globally-connected, fast-paced societies, where interdependencies with billions of strangers and with remote natural environments are the norm.


In every human society, cities have been the path to human development. This means economic growth but, more fundamentally, it refers to changes across all dimensions of human life: better politics, public health, justice, education and access to ideas and culture.

So, it should come as no surprise that people everywhere are now aspiring to a modern urban life. Despite many pessimistic views about the feasibility or sustainability of these changes, I think it is a sign of great progress that this is now possible around the world.

"Successful global urbanization could lead to a profoundly-changed world in just a few decades, where age-old human problems of extreme poverty, famine, disease and conflict would be greatly alleviated -- if not eradicated."

Successful global urbanization could lead to a profoundly-changed world in just a few decades, where age-old human problems of extreme poverty, famine, disease and conflict would be greatly alleviated -- if not eradicated.

But time is of the essence: A slower global transition using current technologies may be socially unacceptable and environmentally catastrophic.

Against this background of change, many of the most important international organizations, such as the United Nations and the World Bank, have committed themselves to ambitious human development goals, to be achieved through urbanization.

The problem is that we really do not know how: If cities are necessary for human development, they are too often not sufficient. For now, at any rate, the realities of life for most people in the fast-growing cities of developing nations are fairly dismal.

Though there are strong variations, much of the cities of South Asia, Africa or Latin America are being built mostly by hand, often illegally or on occupied land. Most of their inhabitants are poor, and most of their neighborhoods are slums.

This "challenge of slums" encapsulates the growing pains of our brave new urban world. Are the vast slums that became the face of contemporary urbanization simply a temporary stage of development -- or a new permanent condition?

Faced with this reality, governments and international organizations have tended to respond in traditional planning style: how can urban space be reorganized? How can slums be eradicated? How can we build modern infrastructure and housing for such enormous populations? How can such vast projects be financed?

The numbers are mind-boggling, if not downright discouraging. For example, a recent McKinsey report estimated that $2.2 trillion in new urban infrastructure is needed in Indian cities alone between now and 2020.

These traditional planning and policy responses are not necessarily wrong, but they take a blunt view of the issues at hand. As such, traditional large-scale urban planning solutions risk failure on two fronts: First, they will repeat some of the costly errors of urban planning in the past -- for example as they were executed during urban renewal in the US. Second, they place an unwarranted amount of faith on the power of infrastructural interventions to change people's lives.

"Will Chinese cities end up like Detroit?"

Vast public housing programs have in the past had very mixed outcomes failing, sometimes tragically, in the West, while succeeding spectacularly in some parts of Asia. Why have large transportation infrastructure projects, aimed at improving health and congestion, so often created segregated cities, poor neighborhoods and polluted environments? Will Chinese cities end up like Detroit?

Answers to this type of questions require that we understand, at a much finer level, the processes of human development in cities.

Thanks to new types of initiatives, from local governments to NGOs such as Slum Dwellers International or the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, aided by new technologies that make data collection and analysis much easier, it is now possible to build a much more complete picture of these issues. By collecting and analyzing information and data gathered by residents of thousands of developing neighborhoods around the world on specific aspects of their lives we can learn invaluable lessons for urban science and policy.

Two main patterns emerge: First, poor people pay for urban services primarily with time, not money. Second, how individual time is used in cities is crucial to generate human development and economic growth.

The first point should be obvious and not specific to developing cities; it is a feature of poverty everywhere. Poor people survive (in cities) by procuring essential goods and services themselves: by fetching water, negotiating for food, waiting at the hospital, commuting for many hours, etc. Most of their time is spent in basic activities that keep them going but that do not typically cumulate in terms of knowledge, skills or wealth.

This is a wasteful use of people's time: people can be creative, entrepreneurial and political, in ways that infrastructure cannot.

Thus, the main impact of improved urban services in people's lives is to shift this balance of time for money; of latent creativity for relentless drudgery. In developed cities we do not think much about where our food, water, power, etc, comes from. They magically appear and we pay for them. Our lives, as a result, can become devoted to more valuable and creative activities, such as new or improved goods and services, art, science and technology. The products of such creative endeavors, at all scales, are of course the drivers of economic growth.

"The principal role of the city is to provide the conditions for people to fulfill their socioeconomic creative potential."

The second point should now be obvious: A society where people are "just surviving," where they cannot summon the time and energy to learn new skills or develop new economic ventures or overcome civic or technological challenges is a stunted human society. Thus, the principal role of the city, and of urban planning more generally, is to provide the conditions for people to fulfill their socioeconomic creative potential.

The wrinkle in this argument, of course, is how to pay for the necessary services. If you give people more time, through the provision of better services, how will they use it? Will they be able to pay for such services? What is the best way to ensure that the result of better urban planning and policy is sustainable?

I think that there are no general answers to these questions; they depend on every specific improvement making enough of a difference in people's lives in terms of facilitating economic participation and creativity. This is why incorporating local knowledge in the process of planning is essential. It is especially critical in poor neighborhoods, where it can make the greatest difference and where financial margins are tightest.

To the extent that improvements in governance and services achieve these goals, which are context specific, they will pay for themselves. They will also raise expectations further, so that an open-ended virtuous cycle of development across all aspects of the city - socioeconomic and infrastructural - can be generated.

This means that magic-bullet solutions, aimed at solving big problems once and for all, are likely to fail. Gradual solutions, that follow from actual needs of specific neighborhoods and affect the greatest changes in the lives of residents at the smallest costs, are much more likely to succeed and be sustainable. They also create the conditions for civic and political participation as governments better understand their citizens' needs, and citizens, in turn, commit to their rights and obligations as well as those of others in the city and beyond.

The aspirations of billions of people backed by the conviction of their choices to move and build a new life in cities, however difficult, is the greatest guarantee that this sort of positive change must happen.

But for these transformations to succeed in just a few decades, urban planning and the sciences of cities must change some of their focus from concepts of general equilibrium and engineering solutions and acquire a greater humanist dimension.

This means that we must better understand how cities work as environments that can remove the constraints of "just surviving" and enable instead the unique social creativity of humans to solve complex problems in their communities, in their cities and ultimately in our planet.

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