Since modern times, humanity has been on a steady and continuous path of migrating from rural villages to urban jungles. This process of “urbanization” originated more than two centuries ago, but the next urbanization wave will be of unprecedented scale and pace. As such, it will require radical methods and innovations to cope with ever growing megacities.
The modern urbanization process began with the industrial revolution in the late 18th century, when an increasing share of the population migrated to cities for work and living. This first modern wave of urbanization originated in Britain, where the urbanization rate jumped from 17% in 1801 to 54% in 1891, and then spread to other modern states in (Western) Europe in the course of the 19th century. The second wave of urbanization came after the 1960s and 1970s, when urbanization picked up and accelerated in emerging markets, whose annual urbanization growth (5.0%) showed a significantly faster pace than that of middle-income (3.5%) and high-income economies (1.6%) during that period. This was largely driven by the urbanization process in the East Asia and Pacific region, and in particular by China’s massive urbanization process, as more than 675 million Chinese migrated from villages into Chinese cities between 1960 and 2016. The current, third wave will largely be driven by countries with fast growing populations in combination with a low urbanization base. Most of these countries will be in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, who have the world’s lowest urbanization levels (33.5% and 38.2% respectively). Both regions will have added 850 and 620 million urban dwellers respectively by 2050: a combined rural-urban migration population migration roughly the current size of Spain.This third urbanization wave will be much more disruptive compared to previous waves. Although the first wave of urbanization was a novelty, it was gradual, as it occurred throughout several centuries, while the second wave was driven by a more government-led urban development and therefore more organized (e.g. China’s governmental “Hukou” system). The third wave will be of much bigger scale, while happening largely in poor countries with less effective governments and unstable societies, such as Congo, Niger, Pakistan and India. Megacities arising in these countries will have insufficient infrastructure, resources and institutional capacity to handle this unprecedented flow of rural migrants, which is already visible. For example, women in Dhaka often don’t drink enough water because there is a severe shortage of toilets in the city, while Lagos faces severe health problems because two-thirds live in its dirty and environmentally dangerous slums. Furthermore, the traditional link between economic growth and urbanization seems broken for these cities. As we have noted before, Africa’s urbanization process doesn’t generate the growth and productivity experienced during the European and Asian waves of urbanization, because many poor Africans end up in the enclosed and informal economies of urban slums (instead of higher value-added and productivity sectors like manufacturing or services) and do not benefit from urban public services (i.e. education) or network effects because of severe segregation. Equivalent poverty traps are observed in South Asian slums.With already a third of all urban South Asians and over half of all Sub-Saharan Africans living in slums, new radical measures are needed to manage this urbanization wave. A first positive remark is that both regions have a unique opportunity to get their cities right from the start, by using digital technology to overcome structural problems without establishing the necessary infrastructural investments, a process called “leapfrogging”. Examples are establishing low-carbon smart grids, digital payment systems for the unbanked or sharing capital goods with other citizens. Furthermore, with the accelerating rise of smartphone penetration in emerging markets, data can be used by governments for better and more efficient smart urban development, helping those currently excluded in urban slums to benefit from urban network economies (e.g. India’s Smart Cities Mission). And while many are still unconnected in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, more natural interfaces (i.e. voice) and public-private projects (i.e. Facebook’s Free Basics initiative) also provide economic incentives to boost digitization in these regions.