Stewart Brand and thinking about Megacities

It’s almost half a week from the end of Pop!Tech and I’m still exhausted. I’d like to tell you that this is because I partied hard, like some of my fellow bloggers, and am deep in sleep debt. It’s not true – I figured out a couple of years ago that I’m getting older and that the only way to liveblog these things is to sleep nine hours a night before each session.

No, the more logical answer is that my brain is full. I’ve been to so many excellent conferences this year, heard so many strong speakers that I’m still processing many of the interesting, challenging and exciting ideas these gatherings raise. In that sense, I’m grateful for Joe McCarthy’s summary post of Pop!Tech, which selects a particularly strong quote for each of the speakers, leaving me with a core idea to difest, rather than the pages of verbiage I’ve offered for each…

While I get a lot out of liveblogging these events, I’m starting to think that I may not be doing it as much in the future. One reason is that I’m apparently scaring some others off from blogging each session. Several bloggers came up to me during or after Pop!Tech and thanked me for blogging each event, telling me that because I was blogging each session, they would be focusing on blogging longer, sythesis posts or on commentary on the event. That’s great – I’m grateful for those posts, and I agree that there’s no need for everyone to do the same thing at a conference.

But I miss having other people’s liveblogging to rely on. I really enjoy blogging conferences with Bruno Giussani because we get different things out of the talks and produce different summaries. I suspect that if there were half a dozen livebloggers at each of these events, we’d all produce slightly different accounts and that people really interested in those talks would benefit from comparing all those accounts… It’s a bit like what’s happened with the shrinking number of daily newspapers in most cities – it can be very useful to have half a dozen takes on the day’s events, not just the facts as reported by AP or Reuters.

The other reason is that I want to find more time to talk about these ideas with people when I’m at the conference. Pop!Tech is excellent about this – their technique of mixing attendees by sending them to different locations for lunch is something that all conferences should emulate – but I still am finding that liveblogging is cutting into my conversation time. I spent two days of the conference sitting with Joel Johnson of BoingBoing Gadgets and had an excellent conversation/argument about the perceptions of Kiva in the geek and the international development communities (I have high hopes of writing this up at some point after I’ve processed a bit more). I find myself wondering how many more useful conversations I could have if I could find the right balance between liveblogging and conversing – I’m guessing that the solution isn’t to stop blogging entirely, as I get much more out of these conferences by blogging than I would by just listening…

From Pop!Tech, I went directly to a very different kind of conference, a meeting of Monitor Networks, a new group that’s something between a speaker’s agency, a consulting group, and a thinktank. It’s a group of absolutely amazing people, and I’m honored (and, to be frank, a little intimidated) to be in the same room as these folks.

The topic for a day-long meeting was the future of cities, especially the sorts of huge cities that are increasingly common in the future. One of the presenters at the event was Mike Hawley, who’s working on a project called 19.20.21, which is collecting and presenting information about 19 cities which will have populations over 20 million in the 21st century. (There’s likely more cities that will cross that threshhold, but 19 is a nice way to limit the set.) Another was Chris Luebkeman, who gave a brilliant talk on the urbanization of the planet at Pop!Tech, and Stewart Brand, who has turned his formidible intellect to this topic in recent years.

Brand gave a typically badass talk to frame these issues. Some of the highlights:

– We’re becoming an urban planet. 3% of the world’s population lived in cities in 1800, 14% in 1900 and at least 61% of the world will live in cities by 2030. He thinks we’ll top out at about 80% worldwide, the percentage that’s common in developed countries. (You need some percentage of humanity to grow crops and tend forests, and some of us – like me – just like it better out here.)

– The largest cities wordwide in 1900 were in Western Europe and the US. In 1950, that set included some major global cities like Tokyo and Beijing. By 2000, that set was majority developing world. There’s an odd circularity to this – in 1000, most of the largest cities in the world were outside the West as well. “History is what happens in cities. The developing world is taking over history by taking over the world’s largest cities,” Brand tells us. “The thousand-year rise of the West is over,” and we’re back to a “medieval form of globalization.”

– While it’s sexy to consider the megacities – and Brand is involved with the 19.20.21 project – the action’s in the secondary and tertiary cities. Lagos is exciting, but so are Ouagadougou and Bamako. (Pressed for a definition of secondary and tertiary cities, Brand offers cities under 500,000 as tertiary, 500k – 5 million as secondary. These secondary and tertiary cities are attracting a huge number of immigrants from rural areas – 1.3 billion people in the next two decades.

– Cities are population sinks. People in cities reproduce less frequently than their rural counterparts, due to the liberation of women, the education of men and women, the distractions offered by urban life. As a result, population growth in cities comes from elders and the middle aged in established cities. In new cities, it comes from immigrants from the villages. The net result: “We’ve got new cities full of young people, old cities full of old people and a remote countryside that’s more visited than lived in.”

– Rural landscapes are “radically emptying” – you can find villages around the world that no one lives in anymore on every continent. Why? “Because life really sucks for women in villages.” The work is “dull, backbreaking, impoverished, restricted, exposed, dangerous, and static.” While there’s a hope that technology will help transform rural life, for now people in rural areas look towards cities and see a life that’s “exciting, less grueling, better paid, free, private, safe, and upwardly mobile.”

– Many of the people who are moving to cities are moving to slums. Squatters are the dominant city builders in the world today, moving from cardboard to tin to masonry, leaving rebar sticking out from the roof so they can add more rooms if economic circumstances improve. While they’re often stealing power or other utilities, they would be customers if they could… something that smart power companies are beginning to embrace.

Brand argues that squatters care about:
– Security of tenure – they want assurances that they’ll own their homes before they improve them
– Location – they want to be near jobs
– Water, sanitation, electricity
– Protection from crime, whether it comes from the police, or from gangs
– Education – it’s one of the main reasons to move to cities

They don’t care about:
– Housing – they build it themselves
– Phones – everyone’s got a mobile phone
– Starvation – people don’t starve in cities, while they still do in the countryside
– Medical care – it’s available to a much greater extent than it is in rural areas
– Unemployment – Everyone works, though generally in the informal economy: food stalls, internet cafes, mobile “phone booths”, bars, hairdressers, churches, tailors, copy shops…

– The informal economy is the “dark matter” of economic theory – we know it exists, we know it’s huge (as much as 60% of the total economic activity in developing nations) and economists don’t know how to model it. The “rent of undeeded property, constructions of undeeded buildings, employment in unlicensed untaxed businesses, services in unlicensed and untaxed business, and remittances from illegal workers overseas” all need to be understood to solve economic problems in developing nations.

– Squatter cities, he tells us, are resilient, robust, and vibrant. They’re green, he argues, because they’re very dense and because everything is recycled. (I would call bullshit on this, having spent a lot of time in cities where there’s little infrastructure for sewage, making these some of the foulest-smelling and unhealthiest “green” places on the planet.) They’re created by individual motivation, but supported by complex family, neighborhood and religious networks. They’re the source of hope moving forward for lifting people out of poverty.

Brand offers a terrific reading list for understanding these cities:
Robert Neuwirth – Shadow Cities
Nicholas Sullivan – You Can Hear Me Now
CK Prahalad – The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid

Phillip Longman – The Empty Cradle
Gregory David Roberts – Shantaram
Suketu Mehta – Maximum City

But the fun starts when the twenty or so people in our audience get the chance to drill into Brand’s contentions and ask tough questions:

– Are these cities really safe places? Aren’t rural communities generally a great deal safer than high-density urban ones? (Brand argues that crime in big cities is frequently poor on rich, not poor on poor, suggesting that they might be safer for these new migrants than for established dwellers.)

– Most of these cities are coastal. Won’t rising sea levels spell catastrophe for them? (Nope – sea levels rise slowly. Catastrophe is much more likely from dought and from weird weather than from rising seas, which we can adapt to.)

– Won’t connectivity make rural areas more exciting and liveable and reverse the rural to urban flow? (Cities are about connectivity, Brand argues – they’re one of the oldest and most basic technologies to connect people.)

We break into groups to talk through some of these issues – I end up in a small group that includes a military strategist, a designer and business thinkers. Our group focused on questions of efficiency and effectiveness, an outgrowth of conversations about bottom-up and top-down strategies.

If you’ve got the ability to plan an entire city – as Luebkeman does with Dongtan – you’ll construct a city around public transportation, designing systems that make cars as close to obsolete as possible. But if millions of people are making their individual transportation decisions, they’ll likely choose to maximize their personal mobility, and will probably choose to own their own cars. A centrally-designed mass transit system is much more efficient, at least in terms of carbon dioxide production, space usage, etcetera. But letting people choose to buy cars may well be more effective, unless you’re capable of building really amazing public transit systems.

Part of what’s admired about squatter cities and slums is how effective they are – people find individual solutions to problems that are highly effective. But many of these systems are extremely inefficient – letting everyone work out their own solid waste problem isn’t nearly as efficient as a central sewage system. One question is whether it’s possible to turn bottom-up actions – motivated by effectiveness on a personal level – can turn into efficient systems, designed to help lots of people. Another question asks whether you can talk about effectiveness and efficiency in absolute terms, or whether we need to consider them along different axes – fiscal, environmental, innovation, etc.

I have high hopes that thinking about incremental infrastructure in terms of efficiency and effectiveness will help me clarify that idea. And whether or not it helps me think through this particular idea, brainstorming within a frame that I don’t spend much time thinking about – megacities – was an awfully good reminder that thinking and talking with other people is at least as important as listening to brilliant people speaking on stage.

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10 Responses to Stewart Brand and thinking about Megacities

  1. medea says:

    Funny you should write this tonight. This afternoon I was up in the Medellín slums visiting one of our hiperbarrio participants at her school.

    This article brought up many of the questions I had on my mind while riding the bus up there, looking at these neighborhoods where people raise pigs on the third floor roofs, grow vegetables in cut open bleach bottles they hang from their window sills, where everyone walks or rides public transportation, people have great big smiles on their faces: yet buses have to climb on sidewalks and almost swipe any pedestrians when they meet another bus coming the opposite direction since the streets are too narrow, trash heaps up in corners, some houses continue to build upward even when it is obvious that there are serious stress fractures on the main floor, landslides that have wiped whole blocks off the map and sewage seeping into creeks and rivers coming down from the mountain.

    I don´t think all slums and squatter settlements respond to the criteria Stewart Brand mentions, in fact, a couple sound implausible for me… I´ve seen starvation in cities, and not that much in rural areas. In this community there is no cellphone coverage, and people depend on landlines for communication.

    Perhaps those facts have to do with averages and medians and tendencies reached through statistics, however, humans don´t really act upon statistics, and different communities develop in many different ways, and maybe it would be a good thing to remember, that not every village acts like case studies do.

  2. “I suspect that if there were half a dozen livebloggers at each of these events, we’d all produce slightly different accounts and that people really interested in those talks would benefit from comparing all those accounts…”

    This gave me a half baked idea – what if you liveblogged with partners, and somehow could do a combination of play-by-play, commentary, and maybe some post-game analysis debate? Kinda like a panel on the panel. Not sure how you’d do it (wiki?), but it would be cool to find a way to have more than one perspective on a conference from one source.

  3. Your discussion on top down vs bottom up solutions is really interesting. It’s an obsession in a “modernised” road to plan a very efficient system, however the effectiveness of this is rarely considered. This is especially true on a continent like Africa where systems and processes are often imposed on dynamics rather than the dynamics being allowed to define the process.

    A great example of this is when you see a newly planned park with paths laid out nicely, within a few months different paths will have been worn out by people taking what they deem to be the most effective (if not efficient) route, now imagine this on a city wide scale. The challenge for mega cities is how they can develop systems and infrastructure that fits the unique dynamics of areas on a local level. I’m working with some people on a concept of clustered infrastructure rather like the cellular phone infrastructure operates on a cell/ cluster basis. This approach has redefined communication so why not other infrastructure like water, sewage and electricity.

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  5. Hank Roberts says:

    Hopeful stuff, and probably good prediction given that history is written by the survivors. I do think about the sewage. And resistant staph. Looking at a a megacity I also see a very high concentration of very genetically similar meat to which any number of organisms may come for easy pickings. HIV was an opening act, not the big performance, I suspect. People don’t worry about public health because they don’t understand either ‘public’ or ‘health’ in terms of populations rather than individuals, but it’s the populations that matter, I think, in biology.

    Up in N. California, Mr. Hurwitz’s Pacific Lumber, bankrupt like its owner’s previous savings and loans, is proposing the bankruptcy judge allow breaking up the redwoods into 160-acre timber farms with individual residences on each one. The opposite of the megacity, the rich separate residence.

    Looking at the planet I find myself thinking of the two percent of the people who now own more than half of it — ‘you bought it, you broke it, you pay to fix it’ — and wonder if the megacities do have a ‘black energy’ economy that can keep the kids growing up there smart as well as alive.

    Much appreciate the blogging from those conversations.

  6. mike says:


    I just wanted to second Hank’s concluding comment:

    Liveblogging like you do has to be quite taxing, and it certainly must dictate/limit much of your engagement during the course of the conferences you attend, but it is quite appreciated by lots of us who read your blog regularly but can’t make it to the (rather punishing!) schedule of quite interesting events you attend.

    Whatever you decide related to liveblogging, thanks (from a lot of us) for allowing us in as a fly on the wall to so many interesting conversations.


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  8. susan says:

    I wrote about only one PopTech session for the local newspaper in Camden, Maien – an end of the day session on oceans, with Maine lobsterman/researcher Ted Ames and two European filmmaker/conservationists. I lingered at the event after the session, not rushing right back to my desk, but was back within a half hour. Then I went on line to find the name of the woman who made music with her cell phone and bowls of water, and searched your blog as well. While I didn’t find what I was looking for, I saw that your blogs on the three speakers I had just listened to were already online. I read your two well-written accurate blogs on the Europeans, duly impressed with your speed and focus. (I was leading my story with Ames, and I didn’t want another writer’s verbiage to get stuck in my head.) Just today, after reading a letter to the editor criticizing my story on the session , I went back to your blog and read your version. You really nailed it, and I’d trust your writing on any topic at this point. Glad to hear you prepare for this kind of thing by sleeping nine hours, because I was wondering how you do it.

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