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States of Uncertainty: the City of 2050

November 14, 2013

We know from current discussions in the UK, and from political moves between Bangkok and the Thai government, that tensions are already being felt between large (especially capital) cities and nation states. Perceived by some as polluted, overcrowded, high-stress environments, we nonetheless need to understand how cities might evolve and how we might be affected, so that we might plan accordingly.

We have considered two possible ways in which these fragments could be organised. One is as a network of global cities, with city states replacing many functions of the nation state. Alternatively connections, and therefore markets, could be global and thus largely virtual, replacing geography with other organising structures such as affinity groups.

Our scenarios combine these two aspects of the global society in order to assess the impact on our future economy and society, and ask whether geography matters in the new paradigm. Answering these questions leads us to four scenarios, which provide a framework for thinking about the context, role and shape of cities.

In describing the evolution of the scenarios, we take into account the recent financial crisis in the western economies. In the narrative, for simplicity, we introduce a hypothetical event – where severe weather or another natural cause creates global food shortages – in about 2030. In two of the scenarios, this event causes the collapse of the current world order, i.e. the Washington consensus.

Imagining the world beyond the Washington consensus is challenging since so much of our infrastructure, both physical and governance, is based on western values and management. Clearly not all of this infrastructure will break at the same time, but financial pressures in the United States may hasten the demise of many institutions which implement the international dimensions of the consensus.

The nature of cities could develop in several directions – below, we explore what might happen if the dominant economic paradigm of the Washington Consensus breaks down. One exploration is based on (culturally) walled cities, with very differing cultures and brands. The other is as a set of hubs of intersecting global communities, as London and Singapore are today. A fuller discussion of the basis of the scenarios can be found in the report ‘In Safe Hands’ .

Cultural and economic context

Of the six billion urban dwellers forecast for 2050, most will be in smaller cities, but projections based on UN forecasts for 2025 suggest that by 2050, there could be 500 million living in 20 mega-agglomerations of over 20 million people. Currently, vast cities in the poor nations are seen as centres for epidemic diseases, where crime and ideologically inspired violence are fuelled by poor governance. Furthermore, many cities are exposed to extreme weather events: located near the sea or in river valleys, subject to both flooding and water shortages.

However, there is evidence that concentrating people in one place increases economic activity, return on infrastructure investment and social vitality. If the population of a city is doubled, there is an average 15% increase in the wages and patents produced compared with two cities of the original size. There is also an inverted effect in terms of infrastructure: if the population of a city doubles, it needs 15% less physical infrastructure than two cities.

Ecologically there are also benefits: city dwellers use less energy than people in rural areas, for the same standard of living. Carbon footprints are on the increase and calculations suggest that if everyone consumed as much as the average North American, we would need five planets.

Cities have another side effect which is fundamentally changing society. When people move to cities, women tend to be educated, leading to smaller families. Finally, the penetration of technology has been historically higher in cities, which has the effect of making the world seem smaller. News of train crashes in India, earthquakes in China, fires in Russia, tsunamis in Thailand and droughts in Africa make us aware of events that only a generation ago we would not have known about. The world is also smaller in other ways, with global supply chains and telecoms networks. Failures in these systems have an increasing effect on developed world countries, through shortages of components or hacking of cyber networks. Crime, terror and other less welcome structures are pan-national if not global in this interconnected world.

Scenario 1: The Second Hand scenario

The Second Hand scenario posits a world in which democracy is still valued, western values and institutions are still part of the global business environment and capitalism is still the dominant paradigm, as part of the Washington consensus. It is a world in which geography – in the form of the nation state – still matters, though with weaker powers than today. It is a ‘muddle through’ scenario in which international structures decay as they do not reflect the relative wealth of the BRIC countries and other industrialising nations such as Turkey.

New technological capability will support increasing populations and may also have started to address resource pressures. Food technology will manage to feed the population and technological approaches to ecological, environmental and energy concerns will be quite successful, as solar-rich regions augment oil-rich regions as sources of energy. The potential for human enhancement is such that many individuals will make paying for enhancement a priority.

The cost of defence and border controls will cause regional concerns. Cyber attacks will be commonplace. Nation states will have reduced capability to provide services for their citizens, leading to the lack of a safety net and severe inequalities in health and education.

Immigration will be essential to help regions with ageing populations, such as China, Japan, Europe and the United States, cope with the problems posed by a declining workforce. Africa, India and Latin America will have young populations but making a success of these economies will need all their people, though they may travel for gap years or to get extra language skills.

Scenario 2: The Visible Hand scenario

The Visible Hand scenario refers to a world in which the current political, social and economic regimes are still recognisable within the Washington consensus. The world will have evolved after the financial and fiscal crises, responding to population and resource pressures and taking advantage of new technological capability. It will be more educated and well fed, but at the expense of ‘rugged individualism’, with a pervasive global culture. This pervasive culture will lead to extreme volatility and will break down into a Long Hand or Many Hands scenario by 2050.

Scenario 3: The Long Hand scenario

In the Long Hand scenario, the financial crises of the early years of the century will have been followed by a complete meltdown in many western countries. State budgets will have become overloaded, causing a retrenchment in state expenditure, consumer spending power and overall consumption. As a result, virtual connections which span geographies and are based on ethnic and religious affinity groups will become the main global organising structures.

The path to this scenario is various resource crunches (water, oil, metals, phosphate) and environmental concerns (carbon emissions, pollution) which will combine to push prices up and reduce the consumption of physical goods, especially for poor people, with a crisis in food supply in the 2030’s following a year of extreme weather.

Society will break down, with near-famine conditions for some years, and people’s lifelines will be their affiliate groups. This experience will reinforce the attitude that such affiliate groups are the only dependable source of security and welfare for their members, and they will rapidly become the mainstay of the new paradigm of ‘who you trust’.

The perceived life experience of most people (the ‘feel good factor’) will not have been adversely affected. They will discover they can enjoy rich and fulfilling lives with less physical consumption by using the entertainment and social capabilities of the web.

In this scenario, the role of national or regional governments will be to enforce geographically based property rights and to keep law and order.

Communities across geographies and cities

Communities will have a heightened dependence on virtual infrastructure. New global governance mechanisms will arise, based around a loose network of affiliate groups with differing organising principles but a common need to tackle global concerns – ecological, environmental or related to energy.

Cities that will thrive will be those that can provide physical security and virtual infrastructure for a range of diverse communities.


People will form their principal social interactions through work and social networking (often the same institutions), with other people who share the same interests, language and ideological or religious perspectives. Affiliation to these cyber groups will become more important than loyalty based on geography or nationality.

Scenario 4: The Many Hands scenario 

The Many Hands scenario sees a world which has declared globalisation to have failed, democracy to be too unwieldy and western value systems to be inadequate. The concept of the nation state as provider will have disappeared. In its place, a multitude of city states will emerge, in some cases completely replacing a failed state, in others co-existing (occasionally awkwardly) with a state whose role and authority will often be substantially reduced. Mobility across states and between cities will be the norm. The city state communities will have very different strengths, weaknesses, wealth levels and brands.

One of the main drivers will be the progressive failure of globalisation to deliver its promised advantages and benefits beyond a restricted circle of countries. The desire of countries to protect their economies in a time of protracted difficulties and resource scarcity will see a growth in trade barriers and protectionist measures. At the same time, the widespread crisis of confidence and trust – towards the state and its institutions, but also towards the private sector – will fuel malcontent and secessionist aspirations.

The extreme weather events in the 2030s will plunge the world into a heightened state of insecurity from which it will not yet have emerged in 2050.  Supply chains will be rethought and credit will be realigned to available resources. Cities on flood plains with over two billion of the world’s population between them will be the worst affected areas.  Food and potable water supplies will be severely disrupted. The global population will have fallen by a billion people in the 2030s due to food scarcity, epidemics and wars, although the world will appear by 2050 once more to be on a growth path.

Role of cities

City states will represent fortresses where individuals seek protection and order. It will be very much be a world where inequality is high, both within and amongst cities. Cities will have distinctive brands and the strongest will be able to pick and choose their inhabitants, leading to positive feedback and wealth reinforcement. Control of immigration and wars for resources will mean that successful cities have armies consisting of robots; unsuccessful cities will have armies of disenchanted youth, while some city states will have failed and disappeared. 70% of the world’s population will live in city states and the top 50 worldwide will form the C50, replacing the G20. 25 of the C50 will be in Asia and 10 in Africa.

Cities will not assume all of the ‘old’ state responsibilities, particularly welfare and financial protection, although they will collaborate with whatever survives of the nation state to provide security and defence against physical and cyber attacks.

Effect on individuals

Individuals will protect their personal identity, credit ratings and parking spaces at all costs. There will have been a collapse of traditional monetary systems. Social networking will have empowered the middle classes in particular. Intelligence gathering will be a key source of competitive advantage for corporations and the ability to maintain trust and reputation will be fundamental.

Written by Gill Ringland and published in Libertine.

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