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July 30, 2009

When Cities Grow Too Fast

All around the world, experts have been studying urbanization for decades. It is an undeniable global trend, one with major consequences for all of us. But it’s not until you come to Asia, where people are pouring into cities from Seoul to Singapore, that you begin to understand the full effects of rampant urbanization.

 “The question is how we can prevent urbanization,” said one participant in IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook deep dive in Singapore yesterday. “I don’t think megacities are sustainable.”

“The blind rush to cities is creating environmental problems and deteriorating the quality of life in our cities,” said another.

“If large companies would start supporting tele-commuting, we might be able to slow the growth of these cities,” said yet another.

It’s not surprising that residents of this area are gravely concerned about this unchecked urban growth. Our meeting was attended by urban experts from Singapore, Japan, China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, The Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand. And the concern about the negative impacts of overpopulation in their cities was palpable.

But despite this universal concern, it was widely acknowledged that there is nothing to be done about it. People come to cities for many reasons: jobs; entertainment; family; friends; and sometimes because they have no where else to go. Urbanization is a force of nature, a sign of our times, and it cannot be controlled, even if someone were so inclined.

Of course, this immutable fact only reinforces the need for better planning, more efficient systems, and sustainable solutions; a reality that was not lost on this group. “Cities are like multi-dimensional jigsaw puzzles,” reasoned one participant. “To have a good puzzle, you have to design it properly. But most cities are not designed like this. They just keep adding things on, like a rubbish heap. So there is a great need for good master planning.”

Planning like that requires deep insight, both from the elected leaders that govern these places and the citizens that live in them. From that insight they must develop well-defined goals and constantly measure their progress against those goals. In this way, running a city is not unlike running a business.

“In the business world we use dashboards to measure our progress,” said one participant from Hong Kong. “But what if we used the same tools for leaders and individuals in a city? Only we make the dashboards relevant for each of them, so that they feel that with their actions, they can move the dial?”

In other ways, cities are nothing like businesses, of course. And some of our participants were quick to remind us of that fact. “Businesses can be incredibly creative and they can act very quickly,” said one participant from New Zealand. “But they are also profit driven, and have a huge capacity for greed. I don’t think cities can afford the luxury of failure that comes from greed.”

Cities certainly can learn a lot from the private sector when it comes to strategic planning and managing growth. But they’ll have to learn from their own citizens and other cities as well. And in this part of the world, that learning can’t happen fast enough. 

July 30, 2009 | Permalink

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Posted by: Students Resource | Nov 16, 2009 5:38:31 AM

That is a beautiful wish to ask that government learns from the private sector.

Posted by: Renaissance Clothing | Mar 7, 2010 10:03:06 AM

One concrete example of the negative effects of urbanization happened here in the Philippines a few months back.. "Supposed to be" drainage areas are infested by subdivisions. The purpose is urbanization. But the consequences are deadly. :(

Posted by: renaissance costume | Mar 21, 2010 8:28:32 AM

why prevent urbanization? as long as it's for the good, there's no use of preventing it right?

Posted by: wench costume | May 7, 2010 1:13:25 AM

To have a good puzzle, you have to design it properly. But most cities are not designed like this. They just keep adding things on, like a rubbish heap. So there is a great need for good master planning

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