Population Growth and the Rise of Mega-Cities: Can Technology Help?

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Cities like Melbourne are experiencing growth but how will they handle the influx in the long term?

Are you ready to share the planet with 7 billion people? Current projections estimate that this population milestone is only months away. Along with a rapidly growing world population, the wave of urban growth continues, causing cities to swell and new metropolitan centers to emerge. As of 2008, more than 50 percent of the world’s population lived in cities for the first time in history. In addition, a recent UN-Habitat report indicated that urbanization has become unstoppable and that by 2050, over 70 percent of the world will be in cities! It seems the world took Petula Clark’s song Downtown seriously.

To get some perspective on how the urban landscape has changed, the following table shows the top 20 cities in the world by agglomeration in 2011 compared to their populations in 1995:

Pop. (millions)
Rank City Country 2011 1995
1 Tokyo Japan 34.3 26.8
2 Guangzhou (Canton) China 25.1 n/a
3 Seoul Korea (South) 24.6 11.6
4 Delhi India 24.1 9.9
5 Mumbai (Bombay) India 23.5 15.1
6 Mexico City Mexico 22.9 15.6
7 New York USA 22.0 16.3
8 Sao Paulo Brazil 20.8 16.4
9 Manila Philippines 20.2 9.3
10 Jakarta Indonesia 18.8 11.5
10 Shanghai China 18.8 15.1
12 Los Angeles USA 18.0 12.4
13 Karachi Pakistan 16.9 9.9
14 Osaka Japan 16.8 10.6
15 Calcutta India 16.7 11.7
16 Cairo Egypt 15.4 9.7
17 Buenos Aires Argentina 14.8 11.0
17 Moscow Russia 14.8 9.2
19 Dhaka Bangladesh 14.1 7.8
20 Beijing China 14.0 12.4


Now the first thing to acknowledge with a list like this is accuracy. It would be ideal to have agreement on what is a city. The problem, however, is the lack of consensus. Is it just the urban core that is significant or does the entire metropolitan area/agglomeration define a city? Often, it depends on who is defining it and for what purpose. So the criteria for determining exactly who are active enough in an urban region to be deemed as part of its populace can be challenging. The above data for 2011 considers the broader definition of ‘city’, whereas the 1995 data appears to vary in terms of surrounding areas it accounts for.

Still, this table reveals some interesting trends. For instance, Asia is clearly dominating the largest cities list. Chief among these is Japan, which also suffers from an inescapable problem of being unable to acquire more geography to diffuse some of its population density in Tokyo. We’ve all heard of the incredible growth that China is experiencing, both in population and urbanization, and Guangzhou taking up position as second indicates how important this area is for manufacturing and trade, especially with Hong Kong. India like China is experiencing a transition out of the developing nation moniker as globalization has brought new opportunities, especially in information technology and outsourcing. Though economic growth has slowed recently, projections indicate that by 2025, the combined population of Delhi and Mumbai will be 54 million.

The list shows the mega-cities of the world, which the UN recently reports are merging into mega-regions, such as the 120 million people living in the Guangzhou-Shenhzen-Hong Kong region. Still the top 40 mega-regions only account for 18% of the world’s population. While growth in these cities is expected to climb, the real growth and problem lie in the areas where new growth will surge: smaller towns and cities. Mega-cities have better infrastructure and resources to handle population growth surges than smaller cities. Without being able to acclimate to urbanization, smaller cities may end up strained to manage increasing numbers of residents without work, creating a spiraling problem of poverty. In the end, the UN report concludes that it is poor people that will make up a large part of growth in cities.

This raises one of the longstanding concerns with population growth: how will the world take care of its poor? Estimates indicate that 2.4 billion people living in cities with the next 30 years will need access to essential services, such as clean drinking water, sewage, power, and transport. Additionally, calls for changes to agricultural practices and experimentation with cloned animals for consumption add to the efforts to manage the food supply, with the limelight stolen by genetically modified foods. Cities will have to counter the degradation of urban space into slums as well in order to ensure sustainability. What is needed is either a plan for cities to manage such massive increase in population and/or finding means within the city’s infrastructure to alleviate poverty.

In the midst of these problems, there is great potential for accelerating technologies to help carve out a future for everyone on the planet. Accelerating technologies provide revolutionary change that can usher in quantum-like jumps in civilization. Though the connections between accelerating technologies and metropolitan population growth are complex, certain relationship can be teased out. For instance, the story from the Industrial Era is that if a machine can replace human workers, then they will. These displaced workers must then find comparable employment or jobs that allow them to transfer their skills. As the transition continues, unemployment rises along with a growing population of workers that require retraining in order to become employable. Obviously, larger cities offer more options both in comparable work, transferable industries, and retraining opportunities. Additionally, there are often more opportunities for aid in cities, especially with the degradation of physical communities.

A graphical depiction of world population density based on 2006 data from Yale’s G-Econ project.

A principle may be at work, one that technologists and optimists argue should make us hopeful for the future: human intelligence and creativity generate resources through technology to a greater extent than human consumption can deplete them. This can be a hard theory to accept when it produces cavalier attitudes about looming threats, such as climate change. Environmentalists have every reason to scoff at a theory that, if proven wrong, may make it too late for the human race.

Yet, it is clear that we are in a unique era. We’re in that part of the curve when accelerating technologies seem to be making huge advances or seem to be right on the cusp of them. One of the best examples of an accelerating technology is the Internet. Not only has it transformed books, but it is accomplishing what the written word had always promised – rapid, widely distributed, information transfer. The Internet seemed to connect the world overnight, allowing for sharing of ideas and exposure to problems on the other side of the globe as our problems.

So what does that mean for the next 20 years? The landscape is certainly going to change, especially in developing countries. Mega-regions of urban sprawl will arise in numerous Asian cities while many cities around the world struggle to meet the needs of their citizens. But the world’s hope falls on entrepreneurs, startups and small companies that are just now gaining momentum on ways to meet the needs of billions. Now more than ever, the open and global exchange of ideas to solve these problems is drastically needed.


[Image: Casey Wong via SXC, flickr]

[Sources: CityPopulation.de, The Guardian, UNESCO, UNFPA]

David J. Hill

Managing Director, Digital Media at Singularity University
I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

Discussion — 7 Responses

  • Sven June 23, 2011 on 8:57 am

    I have lots of doubt about this predicted development (growing population + rise of mega-cities). Here is why:

    1) In the western world, populations are slightly shrinking overall (especially in Europe and Japan). The US is the only industrialized nation that still grows (a little) population-wise. The reason for this is that women have less children. I don\’t see this as a problem since we also get older and older and stay younger at the same time thanks to progress in medicine, a healthier lifestyle, etc..
    The upcoming nations like China and Brasil will soon follow that trend (e.g. see China\’s one-child policy)

    2) I have lived in NYC for the last 10 years and the core population did not change at all during that time (it\’s still 7Mil as it was in 2000). The main reason, why cities in Asia (Chine) and other upcoming developing nations are growing so fast is that people are moving in from the countryside to find jobs. The city – as it has been in the 19th century during the industrial revolution – is still pretty attractive for those without a job. BUT: How long will this trend last? People will be working more and more from home (now it\’s IT, soon it will be teachers as well, and many other jobs will follow that trend) and who really wants to live in a crowded, dirty, and polluted city, when there is the prospect of a nice house+garden where the kids can play and be more free?

    Bottom line: The cities\’ growth right now is based on jobs in which the worker is still required to show up every morning at a central spot (office/factory/etc..) This kind of people-magnet will disappear soon due to automation and telecommuting and the growth of the cities will stop abruptly.

    But that\’s just my prediction.

    Btw: We are moving back to the countryside due to me being able to work from home (I\’m a programmer) and the kids having more opportunities there in terms of healthy development and education.

    • Scribe Sven October 26, 2012 on 4:13 pm

      I think cities are growing for multiple reasons, jobs being one reason alone.

      Health, sanitation, environment, technology, electricity, trade, connectivity and other concerns are all things that cities address.

      In terms of energy consumption, cities are lower than suburbs or rural areas on a per capita basis. Cities can be magnitudes of levels higher in terms of cleanliness than the country side. Frankly, not everyone in the world could move to the countryside, there are too many of us and the planet couldn’t support all the white-picket-fences and lawns.

  • Eric K June 23, 2011 on 10:49 am

    Infinite growhth and infinite population growth is NOT POSSIBLE

    ( moreover population , work, creativity, everything is and will be useless )


    in the end we must try to accept or uselesness, and learn in peace : in a better society

    and : we must create this is society : now

  • Chris Webb June 23, 2011 on 1:55 pm

    I don’t think that the population of the world can be sustained at current levels. Our planet is fast running out of the basic resources we need just to survive.
    Fresh water the very life blood of all life is drying up in a lot of the most populated parts of the world. For example. The Ganges River in India is glacier feed. In a decade or so it may cease to flow if temperatures continue to rise. Millions or people depend on this water. In Africa and the Middle East aquifers are drying up because they took thousands of years to fill and are being drained in tens of years. Desertification is increasing worldwide as more forest land is destroyed for wood, charcoal, farming and livestock.
    The oceans provide a valuable source of protein for about 70% of the world. These stocks are dwindling at a rate that is incomprehensible. Only to be replaced by the destruction of wild land based species and more intensive livestock production. Dead zones in estuaries and in the oceans are increasing in size and number each year.
    Industrial farming is depleting the soil of trace minerals and elements only to be replaced with petrol chemicals. Which if you don’t know by now are just poisoning the soil.And speaking of petrol chemicals. We are fast running out of those to. Their Oil. And oil is the only reason our population was ever able to grow to the obscene level that it has.As for Bio Fuel.The US currently uses 15% of its arable land to produce less than 2% of its energy needs. Do the math.
    There are so many signs of our plight. And we always say that our intelligence will save us.Most of us are not smart enough to realize how dumb we really are.
    And that one child policy doesn’t work. Culture, the family name, practicality or whatever. People tend to want boys over girls. Now imagine what happens when a ratio of 4 to 1 occurs. China has realized this problem and now has to deal with the consequences.
    Simple put. We are causing our own extinction. The really sad thing is how so many other species will go down with us.
    And one last thought. The Earth doesn’t need us. It will be just fine after we’re gone. We need the Earth.

  • Pete Wason October 11, 2012 on 9:05 am

    Anyone interested in city design should read Arcology: The City in the Image of Man, by Paolo Soleri.

    • Scribe Pete Wason October 26, 2012 on 4:38 pm

      Thanks, will try to check it out.

      Perhaps the library will have it today!

  • Scribe October 26, 2012 on 4:38 pm

    Sewer systems replace cheap and dirty out-houses or expensive/intensive septic systems; walk/bike-paths, subways and elevators replace cars and trucks (even horses and oxen, both worse polluters than automobiles) for transportation; trade being localized makes access to required goods and services (including food and healthcare) more accessible; high quality-of-life and ability to self-sustain leads to decreasing crime levels (crime is still decreasing in most of the developed world). These are things cities are currently doing to make life more livable. These are also things that help reduce the impact (per capita) humans have on the planet.

    When the geography of cities can be more firmly assessed and utilized, cities become more optimal at providing for our needs and more people are able to live in more and more compact areas with less and less of an impact. This is the trend of our specie’s history, and one that is continuing with more developments.

    Once the city is able to provide the vast majority of its requirements (production of food, energy, goods, livable habitat, and resources [manufacturing non-intensive alternatives to natural resources, such as the many carbon graphenes and the like]), outlying, non-urban areas will no longer need to support human populations. Indeed, preventing natural habitat from regenerating itself or, worse yet, destroying pristine, virgin areas for homes is not sustainable. Contrary to the stereotypical imagery, unless you’re self-sustaining yourself and your life with less than an acre, while cohabiting with the natural fauna and flora: LIVING IN THE COUNTRYSIDE IS LESS SUSTAINABLE THAN LIVING IN THE CITY.

    One major challenge at present is creating food through roof-tops and hydroponics within urban settings. When done properly, a combination of these two with renewable energy could help cities feed themselves…indefinitely. As it stands at present, trucking in food from the other side of the planet is still cheaper than a psychological overhaul like this (changing habits, as one can attest from one’s own personal life, is problematic). Petrochemicals make this illogical, resource-intensive method fiscally ‘cheap’ by externalizing all the negatives.

    Picture the most idyllic, peaceful and natural community you can: familiar, fun, clean, safe, and filled with opportunity. This is what the future of the city ought to be, and what many people, consciously or no, are creating in today’s cities.