Megacities: What’s Your Strategy?

Big cities are a curse. People assume getting big is automatically great because of the complexity but the multitude of problems that arrive are unbelievable. Governments fail in too many ways to control the bigger problems worldwide.

 
 

via HarvardBusiness.org by Julia Kirby on 5/13/09


The Wall Street Journal reports on the disturbing effects of one of the world’s major trends: its increasing urbanization, and in particular the rise of “megacities.”

The news story focuses on Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh in India, where the surging population has overwhelmed an infrastructure not seriously updated for decades. But Lucknow’s woes are not unique. Sprawling slums, inadequate sewage systems, choking pollution, and unfathomable traffic congestion are par for the course in the burgeoning cities of the developing world.

At least 25 cities already have populations exceeding 10 million. And many metropolitan centers that aren’t yet bursting at the seams soon will. According to UN-Habitat’s 2008-2009 “State of the World’s Cities” report, half of all people now lives in cities. Within two decades, it will be 60 percent.

On the management front, there's a curious lack of thinking by business leaders about how this intense urbanization will affect their business models, offerings, and organizations. Usually we see forward-thinking companies tracking major trends in their environments and talking about how they will ride, not buck, them. But the megacities trend seems to have stymied the strategists. 

Two notable exceptions: IBM and Siemens both seem to have been thinking hard about it. That’s as it should be, since both are in the business of selling infrastructural upgrades to municipal authorities. They have a direct role to play in what geographer Terry McGee called the “metrofitting” that growing cities periodically require. Likewise, ARUP, the engineering firm entrusted with many of the world’s largest construction projects, is thoughtful about the implications of high population concentrations.

But who out there is thinking about what megacities mean for serving tomorrow’s consumers, optimizing tomorrow’s supply chains, and recruiting and equipping tomorrow’s workers? Think ahead a decade or so to a world even more city-centered than today’s: What now-common business practices will no longer be tenable? What new opportunities will there be for offerings to make customers’ lives better? The famed information architect Richard Saul Wurman, who leads an initiative called 19, 20, 21 (for the project’s focus on 19 cities with 20 million people in the 21st century), says “the rise of supercities is the defining megatrend of the 21st century.”

It’s a trend we can’t beat – so surely it’s time to join it.

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