When Via Meadia first drew up the list of ten trends that would shape the next decade, we coined the term “panopolis” to describe the forces turning the peoples of the world, developed and now developing, too, into a race of urbanites. From the original description:
These cities aren’t just bigger than the old ones. They are different. By 2020 cities like Lagos, Karachi, Delhi and Jakarta won’t just contain 20 million or more people. They will contain every level of human life from the unimaginably wealthy who helicopter over the teeming streets below and jaunt around the world to the illiterate garbage pickers haunting the fringes of the great urban slums. These new cities will deserve the name ‘panopolis,’ or ‘total city’: they will include the full range of the human condition and all the world’s poverty and wealth can be found in them. Moreover, thanks to the continuing explosive growth in communications technology, the inhabitants of these cities will be plugged in as never before. Even the poorest will have access, however fleeting and partial, to the internet, broadcasters and other sources of information. The poor will know a lot about the rich.
Two years removed, we see little reason to adjust this assessment; if anything, this trend is accelerating. Beijing reported this week that, for the first time in history, more Chinese live in cities than in the vast countryside. Migration from rural villages to the urban centers is far from a new phenomenon (just ask any historian about the Industrial Revolution), but it has never happened so rapidly as it is happening today. What’s more, this is a truly global phenomenon: Developing-country cities like Karachi and Sana’a are pushing their way into ranks of the world’s largest.This shift has brought with it a new tensions and new headaches for urban planners and politicians. Staggeringly poor infrastructures, notably in India but also throughout the rest of Asia and Africa, are already having trouble coping with current populations, much less new waves of migration. And like Lazarus and the rich man, in many cities the desperately poor can see for themselves how the ludicrously wealthy live. Destabilizing unrest like hunger strikes and large-scale protests have become commonplace responses to the luxuries displayed by the wealthy and well-connected urban elite. In Asia, such unrest has not been limited to India; urban violence has been a growing problem in Pakistan. And the unrest in Wukan looks like only the beginning of a larger conflict that will play out over the next decade. Even in America, Occupy Wall Street draws its power from popular resentment of the financial Masters of the Universe.There is virtually no corner of the earth today in which societies are not struggling to manage the urbanization behemoth. Ever greater numbers people flocking to cities from the countryside, hoping for opportunities, a roof over their heads, food, survival—but not just survival. They will want a piece of that pie their well-to-do neighbors are enjoying for dessert—healthcare, education, higher-paying jobs. Figuring out how to deliver those things is going to test the mettle of political leaders for the next decade and beyond.