Nat Wei, Young Global Leader Class of 2013, on how emerging cities can help shape the world

In just over 10 years, 136 new cities, all of them in the developing world, will take their place among a group of 600 that generates the bulk of global GDP growth. Few people know the names of most of these cities, some of which are still being built.

I’m quoting a recent McKinsey report, which highlights the impact that hundreds of cities will have on global resources and demand for manufactured goods, construction and services. To me, these new emerging cities (and emerging areas within megacities, such as the London borough of Shoreditch, where I live) represent three key opportunities.

Firstly, nation states and regional blocs such as the European Union are under huge strain in the age of the Internet and economic austerity. Cities, by contrast, offer a more responsive environment to the current challenges we face as citizens. Studies of commercial innovation indicate that it is concentrated in urban areas. The arts, ideas and social enterprise also revolve around creative networks based in cities.

Secondly, cities have the potential to generate wealth, democracy and new forms of governance where other efforts to produce change have failed. According to Adam Smith, middle-class urban dwellers demand freedom in exchange for bankrolling the activities of their national leaders.

Thirdly, with most of the world now living in cities, many global challenges can be seen in this context and solutions found through engaging with urban problems.

Much attention on the future of cities relates to their physical planning and design – their hardware. But the really interesting questions lie in their software:

  • How will people shape the city, and thereby the world?
  • How do we design cities that enable citizens to connect serendipitously not only with each other but also with citizens in other cities?
  • How will our cities bring together new kinds of cross-sector civic leaders to work across government, social and private spheres to address the challenges of the day in ways that can be difficult at national level?
  • How will emerging cities communicate effectively what they represent as brands to the world, and connect with complementary partners for exchange and trade?

I believe that we now need new kinds of forums: City Economic Forums. This is the notion that in every city, particularly emerging ones, a creative community of leaders can be cultivated, if one does not already exist, and become connected with counterparts in other cities to work on issues of common interest and develop unique solutions for their cities and for the world. By shaping future cities, we will, in turn, find ourselves shaping the future.

Author: Nat Wei is a social entrepreneur and the youngest member of the House of Lords (United Kingdom). He was named one of 199 Young Global Leaders, Class of 2013, by the World Economic Forum. 

Image: A general night view of a mega city REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk