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6/9/2015 Global Strategic Foresight Community - Reports - World Economic Forum

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Global Strategic Foresight Community

 Cities and Urbanization Engineering and Construction Infrastructure

Improving the Quality of Life in Megacities

Harnessing the Next Billion Brains

Rogerio Rizzi de Oliveira, Hewlett-Packard Company

The shift in population from rural to urban areas is creating a new wave of megacities. The growth of
megacities poses the challenge of creating urban infrastructure in a world where capital is scarce, where
experience in dealing with infrastructure deficiencies is drawn from smaller cities in the rich world, and
where the democratic mechanisms of stakeholder consultation mean that implementing new
infrastructure is a slow process. How do we ensure that we harness the collective brainpower of the next
billion – leveraging exponential technologies – to find solutions to the challenge of drastically improving
life in the megacity of the 21st century?

Populations are shifting from rural areas to growing cities, creating megacities in Share this page:

the process. Because so many people arrive in cities before more houses or
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infrastructure are built to absorb them – with the exception of China, where
migration is more subject to central control – a large percentage of the initial
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growth in megacities is likely to be in slums. Without urgently improving city
infrastructure, there is a risk that the poor quality of life in megacities could spiral
downwards into social collapse. We currently do not have proven infrastructure
solutions or suitable models – can we rise to the challenge? Author

We are seeing mass migration to cities everywhere in Asia and Africa. A

couple of billion people have moved from rural areas to cities over the last 50
years, and another couple of billion will do so by 2050. 

Ultimately, this will result in a slowdown in population growth as people have fewer
children when they move from rural areas to city centres. For example, Brazil was
Rogerio Rizzi de Oliveira
one of the first emerging economies to experience mass migration in modern times
Vice-President, Corporate
– São Paulo’s population went from 2 to 20 million between 1950 and 2000 – and
Strategy, Hewlett-Packard
its fertility rate plummeted from an average of 6 births per woman in 1970 to 1.8 in
2010. However, Brazil as a whole will not start to experience population deflation
until around 2030, about the same time as China, Indonesia and Iran; it will be the
second half of the century before it is happening everywhere. We still have several
decades of megacity growth to navigate before population pressure eases.
All opinions expressed herein are those
of the authors. The World Economic
Forum provides an independent and
impartial platform dedicated to
The fast growth of megacities poses the challenge of supporting quality of generating debate around the key
topics that shape global, regional and
life. Three aspects of the infrastructure challenge need to be addressed. First, industry agendas.
except perhaps for New York and Tokyo, the developed world has never had to
deal with megacities – and New York and Tokyo became megacities a century ago. 1/3
6/9/2015 Global Strategic Foresight Community - Reports - World Economic Forum
The most visible proposals for solving the widespread infrastructural deficiencies in Highlight
megacities typically draw on what worked in relatively small rich cities in Europe –
Amsterdam, Stockholm, Barcelona – the dynamics of which are incomparable with Can we rise to the challenge
those of Nairobi, Mumbai and Lagos.  of improving infrastructure for
megacities? 3 reasons for
Second, when the original megacities of New York and Tokyo were built, there
were relatively few existing buildings or democratic mechanisms of control and
stakeholder consultation. While obviously welcome, these mechanisms have the
downside of making the implementation of new infrastructure an extremely slow
process. Governments from all parts of the ideological spectrum feel helpless.

Third, capital is scarce and increasingly large parts of public spending will likely
need to go towards health and pension needs, leaving fewer resources available
for investing in infrastructure.


Can we harness new ideas to

improve life in the megacity of
the 21st century?

Innovative solutions to the infrastructure challenge will have to be found in

new places – and there are three reasons for optimism. First, for the first time in
history, top-quality education is available free of charge to hungry students
everywhere, potentially expanding by a couple of billion the number of talented
people equipped with the skills to play the innovation game. The more minds
applied to the problem – especially those with first-hand experience of it – the
greater the chance of solutions. These are the next billion we need to listen to,
collaborate with and support with mostly existing technology.

We need to match this increasing supply of innovation from new geographies to

the need to develop new mechanisms for listening to megacity populations, by
leveraging new effective technologies such as social networks and crowdsourcing.
Early indicators of expectations can be found in the new middle classes and their
growing protests all over the globe.

Second, the technology already exists to design and pilot radically new possible
solutions – smart grids, electric self-driven cars, multitudes of sensors, hyper-loops
and decentralized in-memory computing through the “Internet of Things”. Fast and
bold deployment of these mostly existing technologies will provide the opportunity
for megacities to “leapfrog” in infrastructure development. Everything – from cars
to traffic infrastructure to water and waste management to security – can now have
embedded sensors, as we move from 10 to 50 billion devices connected to the
web in just a few years, creating a global mesh of information, data and
instantaneous processing. 

Third, this is a time to lead by democratic example. The hardest part of the solution
is to deploy new projects and new capabilities within a well-functioning governance
structure, and deciding who designs, who implements and who pays. The
technology is ready. We need success cases, small and large victories, everywhere
to catalyse action. 

If solutions are not found, the result could be collapse. Declining quality of 2/3
6/9/2015 Global Strategic Foresight Community - Reports - World Economic Forum
living in megacities – rising costs, unmanageable traffic, debilitating pollution,
critical water problems, rampant crime – is already leading to visible mass protests
and brain drain. We need to find solutions to avoid collapse and get us through the
next two or three decades, after which reduced population growth will begin to
reduce the pressure on infrastructure. 

Megacities need to flourish as design leaders of innovative solutions, where its

population can increasingly live lives blessed with quality and meaning – before
they become tired old places with little to offer. We need urgently to find ways to
harness existing technology and new brainpower to create amazing showcases for
improving the quality of life in the megacity of the 21st century. The power of the
next billion.

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