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Blog - Megacities: threats or opportunities?

We reflect on World Population Day, and what an increasingly crowded planet means for cities.

On the 11 July every year, whenever World Population Day comes around, it’s always a timely reminder of why we do what we do at Future Cities Catapult. It also highlights the importance of maintaining our global perspective.

Today there are 7.6bn people on the planet. In thirty years that number will rise to over 9bn, and by the end of this century the total human population is expected to be 11.2bn.

This has massive implications for how we live, and it will be seen most starkly in megacities (cities with over 10 million people). Over the coming decades 70% of humans will be living in cities. In 1950 that figure was only 30%.

Our future is not only a more crowded one, it’s also urban and the pace of change is incredible. If you like your urbanisation statistics super-sized, then start with China.

Since 1980 the equivalent to the combined populations of the USA, Britain, France, Germany and Italy have left the farms of China’s countryside. Or to put it another way, urban sprawl has come to them. In only a decade from now it’s estimated that a billion people, 75% of China’s population, will be city dwellers.

But it’s not all about China.

Megacities are mushrooming across Asia and in the middle of this century India is expected to overtake China’s current population of 1.4bn. In Latin America over 80% of people already live in cities yet urban growth continues. Keep an eye on Africa’s rapidly growing cities too where fertility rates are still the highest in the world.

So from Lagos to Mumbai, Delhi to Cairo, Jakarta to Sao Paulo the tale of population growth is also the tale of megacities.

Overwhelming as the scale of global urbanisation may seem, some of it is not a million miles away from the UK’s experience. After all, London was one of the first modern, global cities and Britain was the first country to industrialise, de-industrialise and then move to a knowledge economy.

Today Britain’s cities are becoming connected living and learning environments which record data on everything from traffic, air quality, energy usage and environmental change. British companies are also some of the best in the world in convergence technologies that integrate smart grids, the built environment and digital media.

The UK has strong international expertise in smart city planning, citizen-centred service design and data analytics. It’s why Britain is a global leader in designing and creating cities of the future. It’s also why British skills and expertise in urban innovation are in demand overseas.

Take the work we’re doing on the Future of Planning where we’re working with businesses and cities to explore how digital innovation, urban data and citizen-led design can bring city planning into the 21st Century.

In Brazil we’re working with UK companies to help urban transport planners use data better, and in Malaysia we’re helping cities promote intelligent transport solutions to reduce carbon emissions. As India’s cities increasingly embrace innovation, we are helping to establish a national smart cities innovation hub for India.

The global smart cities market is valued at more than £900 billion by 2020 with an estimated global infrastructure investment of £25 trillion required over the next 20 years if our urban futures are to be sustainable ones. Globally there are huge opportunities to develop liveable and resilient urban infrastructure using smart financing and business models.

This is why World Population Day is more than just an avalanche of overwhelming statistics for those of us working on urban challenges. It’s a reminder of why our work is so important, both at home at abroad.

There may be many challenges up ahead but there are also exciting opportunities to find new ways to make cities more resilient, sustainable and healthy places to live.

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