During one inspirational engagement with 99 000 enraptured South Africans in Soweto earlier this month, U2 frontman Bono related how the band’s lead guitarist, The Edge, was actually from “the future”. Turning to him, Bono asked what it was like. The Edge’s succinct response: “It’s better!”
But an equally good rock star answer, particularly when addressing an African audience, would have been: “It’s bigger!”
A recent essay written by Control Risks analysts James Smither and Jonathan Wood for the consultancy’s RiskMap 2011 publi- cation offers some insight into just how much bigger the future will be, particularly for those of us living in cities.
The world’s urban population, they write, is growing by 70- million people a year. That’s one-million migrants every month, which, even after being tempered by death and outward migration, equates to 130 people every minute. “Between 2010 and 2050, the urban population in Africa will treble, and in Asia it will more than double,” Smither and Wood outline, noting that by 2015 there will be at least 550 cities with more than a million inhabitants – up from just 86 in 1950.
But bigger does not necessarily mean better. The authors argue that the “risk consequences” will be significant. Many urban inhabitants will be poor, with the United Nations estimating that, by 2035, the majority of the world’s poor will be living in cities. By 2040, there could, for instance, be some two-billion urban slum dwellers, and the consequences of having extreme wealth and poverty in such close proximity could well be toxic.
Control Risks warns of serious governance challenges, increasingly overburdened infrastructure, a heightened risk of natural and unnatural disasters, increased urban insecurity, and the emergence of “ungoverned spaces”, which could well be ruled by criminal gangs and/or vigilantes.
For South Africa, where service delivery protests are already a growing phenomenon (Municipal IQ reports that there were 111 such protests in 2010, up from 105 in 2009 and 10 in 2004), serious mitigation planning is required.
Firstly, there has to be an acceptance that the reality of rapid urbanisation is unlikely to diminish. Therefore, the authorities can no longer adopt a passive or defensive stance. Proactive planning steps have to be taken, which requires that physical and nonphysical infrastructure should be provided well ahead of demand.
To get there, the current service delivery backlogs have to be arrested before the scale of the problem becomes uncontrollable. This requires dedicated leadership, far-sightedness and, most of all, well-managed project implementation. Only then is it possible to conceive a future that is both bigger and better.