Building the sustainable megacity of the future

As edie's megatrends series turns the spotlight to urbanisation and smart city development, it is important to consider exactly how the world's megacities can make the transition to low-carbon, resource-efficient hubs that can facilitate sustainable business growth.

Building the sustainable megacity of the future

The idea of the megacity is not new to our rapidly urbanising world: there are currently 425 metropolitan areas of one-million-plus people, with 650 expected by 2025.

These concentrated masses of population promise to be hotbeds of innovation, creativity, and prosperity. The danger, however, is that we are failing to recognise the vast challenges these communities face over the next two decades, not least from climate change, energy and water resources, and food security.  

One of the largest misconceptions when talking about the impact of climate change on densely populated areas is that it is mainly an issue of concern for the third-world. Last year, scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) announced that among the major cities threatened by rising sea levels are New York, Mumbai and Shanghai. It’s clear that the environmental threat to our cities is global.

Large and densely populated cities can be very resilient and resource efficient. We have already begun to harness the technological developments of the past 20 years to make our cities more interconnected, sharing our innovation and creativity.

Developments like mobile computing, predictive big data analysis, crowd-centred data aggregation and the Internet of Things have already started to change the way we live. The question is whether they will enable integration or lead to instability.  

Over time, the systems we will build to secure our megacities could in fact eventually drive us into insecurity, leaving our communities more fragile as leadership teams struggle to understand how to govern an innumerable and interconnected world.

If city leaders have the vision to embrace such interconnectedness, the picture becomes a lot brighter. We can start to see a more positive scenario outcome where, at city level, the boundaries between water, energy and food production will become blurred and disappear relatively quickly, giving way to highly integrated, holistic strategies focused on innovation and resilience. 

Turning megacities into creative cities is hugely important if the challenges we face are to be addressed. This where leadership is crucial. If city leaders can focus renewing old urban infrastructure so that is resilient, integrated and decentralised, there may be great opportunities to closely link energy, water and food production. This would see more holistic, more sustainable growth in urban areas.

This approach is not purely about protecting communities. It will also serve to attract the influx of modern day investors willing to invest capital on climate risk to drive further innovation and sustainable economic development.

As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) puts it, cities have the chance to deliver “systemic change that raises only slightly, or even lowers, overall investment costs”. Institutional investors and sovereign wealth funds are turning their heads towards long-term strategies focussed on resilience and efficiency.

If this is realised, we could see the emergence of new approaches that address the long-term challenges of urban resilience and security as a set of interrelated services and capabilities.

This agenda goes even further than linkages between water, energy and agriculture. It is about a more holistic, networked ‘systems integration’, connecting ecosystem designers and infrastructure engineers to address future challenges in our largest communities.

The question at hand is perhaps one of the most important questions the world faces: do city leaders have the vision to meet these challenges?

For a sustainable, secure and prosperous future for the cities of the future, the answer we must hope for is ‘yes’.

Sustainability megatrends at edie Live 2017

This new series of thought-leadership pieces provides an overview of the environmental and social impacts of the world’s megatrends; exploring how they are helping to shape the low-carbon, resource-efficient business of the future.

The series will culminate with a high-level discussion focused on megatrends at the Strategy and Innovation conference at edie Live 2017 at the NEC Birmingham on 24 May. Find out more about edie Live 2017 and get your free two-day pass here

All of the articles in the megatrends series will be made available when published via this link.


Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie