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

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 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.

David J. Hill
David J. Hill
David started writing for Singularity Hub in 2011 and served as editor-in-chief of the site from 2014 to 2017 and SU vice president of faculty, content, and curriculum from 2017 to 2019. His interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but he'll always be a chemist at heart.
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