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Coming to a Place Near You Soon...Megacities

Kevin Pang, Vice President, Technology Innovation and Strategy
August 10, 2021

Urbanization, 1950                                                                                      Urbanization, 2020

Map showing global city populations in 1950Map showing global city populations in 2020






(L)Snapshot from 1950: Two megacities in the world comprising 0.9% of the global population; (R)Snapshot from 2020: >18-fold increase to 37 cities of 10 million or more. Source:

At 37 megacities and counting, we are on track to break the UN forecast of 41 megacities by 2030 (see figure below).Chart showing the distribution of the world's urban population by size and class of urban settlement and number of cities in 1990, 2014, and the UN's prediction for 2030

Note also that it’s not just megacities – almost all cities are growing in population. 

A fascinating site that maps the growth pattern of the world’s megacities can be found here. 




An interesting example is comparing the urban density of London circa 1914 vs. London in 2016. 

London sprawl circa 1914, density map. 

London sprawl in 2016. 

One of the things that strike one in looking at these time shots is, of course, favorable geography, with the ability to sprawl and yet nucleating around access to water. However, that can’t be the entire rationale for how and why megacities form, and this has been an area of some interesting research. 

In a May 2020 Nature Communications paper, researchers Jing Gao and Brian C. O’Neill modeled the global growth rates of urban sprawl across the globe and came up with some interesting future scenarios. Noting that today 55% of the Earth’s population is already urban, under various scenarios, the amount of urbanized landmass is set to increase anywhere from 1.8 to 5.9 times the estimated 600,000 km2 of urban landmass in 2000 to 1.1 million to as much as 3.6 million km2 by 2100.

What has enabled global urban sprawl and the rise of megacities? Technology, clearly, enables, attracts, and maintains human migration to these centers. Undoubtedly, there have been enabling transformative inventions like electricity and motorized transportation. But they are also the result of the development of balance of systems, the infrastructure of any technology – such as piping for water, wiring for electricity, and even changes in policy like public health – and the rise of a new type of civil engineering, which together enable sustained growth via ever-increasing accessibility to, and efficiency of, the use of vital resources like water, land, agriculture, transport, and education.  

What enables this superlinear scaling over 100 years or more is that old adage that necessity is the mother of invention (and innovation), i.e., how can we fit all these people? Scholars have been wondering for almost as long. 

A few potential reasons are listed in a 2007 review article from the University of Toronto exploring this issue. In it, the researchers point out that high tech tends to cluster, in terms of talent and money, and that urban sprawl might follow innovation sprawl as technically minded and innovation-spirited entrepreneurs migrate into not just physical but also industrial market adjacencies. They describe the phenomenon as “agglomeration and innovation” of “creative capital.” 

In 2010, Louis Bettencourt and Geoffrey West summarized in Nature their and colleagues’ findings in a 2007 PNAS study of 360 U.S. cities indicating that, interestingly, wages, per capita GDP, the number of patents produced, and the number of educational and research institutions all increase by approximately 15% relative to expected growth – all good things. Moreover, this increased productivity occurs at a progressively decreasing cost, to the extent that doubling the size of a city requires only an 85% increase in infrastructure spending. Regardless of specific innovations that enable the growth of a population, the balance of systems – i.e., the piping, the wiring, roads, gas stations, and grocers – all scale utilization rates to support increasing density. 

Curiously, though, the researchers also noted that the bad side of growth, e.g., crime, traffic congestion, and incidence of certain diseases, all increased following the same 15% rule! There appears to be something about critical increasing mass that influences behaviors, both bad and good.

What drives these behaviors?   

Blogger Jim Russell summarized in an interesting way several perspectives that could explain what it is we observe. First, density does not explain everything. Using patent filings per capita per km2 as a measurement of innovation, researcher Richard Florida noted that not all cities are equal. Not all cities, even dense ones, are innovative. Why is that? Based on Florida’s work, Russell developed a hypothesis. He noted that a comparison of the cities Portland, Oregon, and Rochester, New York, both of which at the time of analysis had approximately 1,000 inventors each, indicated that Portland had twice the number of what he called “quality adjusted patents per inventor.”   

He went on to note that further normalization showed that both Portland and Rochester had the same number of “large labs” but that Portland had 5× as many small labs as Rochester and that this might explain the observed increase in innovation productivity. Russell suggested that this snapshot in time is just that; one city is a source of émigrés, perhaps past its heyday, and the other is a destination. Mobility, migration, and momentum might provide advantages.  

New research out of MIT indicates that it might just be mobility, but mobility of a different kind – the mobility of information – that explains the superlinearity of productivity with population density. Their work found a strong correlation between the frequency of person-to-person collisions and observed increases in innovation and productivity. Using a contagion diffusion spread model, the researchers were able to correlate the rate of information spread, using variable proxies like common cell phone tower pings by call partners, with the degree of productivity against city density.   

Potentially powerful, their model suggests why there can be cities of equal densities but much varied innovation and productivity. In a word: congestion. In their view, congested cities begin to behave like linked but otherwise isolated minicities or enclaves, and hence face-to face Brownian movement, collisions, and the subsequent flow of information become congested, and positive density effect is lost. If true, this has mighty implications for the future of urbanization, megacities, and innovation. To list a few: 

  1. Foresight in urban planning and city design becomes paramount 
  2. Solutions that promote mobility and agility of mobility, even with increasing growth, are vital. 
  3. Innovations that improve urban connectivity should be prioritized. 
  4. Even infrastructure solutions like piping, wiring, and roads would benefit from new flexible solutions that facilitate urban agility. 
  5. Nodal distribution strategy for space for services like schools, grocers, and public utilities needs to be part of the innovation design for the urban environment. 
  6. Companies looking to invest in innovation ecosystems need to consider the dynamics of density at their site and investment planning. 
  7. Solutions that promote urban density without congestion will be highly prized. 
  8. Congestion solutions should be actively pursued. 
  9. Digital transformation of the smart city is needed for more efficient and effective resource allocation and sharing.

The latter three points explain a lot of the driving force behind innovations Lux sees being experimented within the market. To direct our readers to a few: 

  1. E-hang’s electric quadcopter for short-range flights  
  2. Electrical vertical and takeoff and landing aircraft companies Volocopter and Joby   
  3. Hybrid car-into-plane makers Terrafugia and AeroMobil 
  4. Smart cities that use digital transformation technologies to more efficiently flow city traffic and resources 
  5. sample range of early-stage experiments cities are undertaking in technology rollouts to help with traffic flow

While many of these technologies, material and digital, are in their infancy, the pressing challenges of urbanization, megacity management, as well as the strategic aspect of locating and exploiting where innovation, investment, and implementation opportunities take place all argue for a focus on the fastest-growing cities. These represent potential targets for innovation and investment. 

So where might we find these opportunities? Besides the usual suspects already grappling with congestion and sprawl and very much in need of resource management solutions, according to ArcGIS, some of the world’s fastest-growing cities between now and 2030 will be in Dhaka, Cairo, and Kinshasa.   

Opportunities are growing everywhere. 

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