Wednesday, December 28, 2011


As posted on

There is a certain romanticism that we all carry about rural living. For many of us it represents the simple life, a place where you go when you need to slow down and not do much. And it is precisely that. The world’s relentless march forward occurs in the cities. Almost three quarters of the world’s productive output, its GDP, comes from its cities. There are simple reasons for this. When we cluster closer together into large agglomerations it brings us close to resources and information. City living is more expensive because we are willing to pay more for the choice and opportunity that this results in. For the entrepreneur, it allows you to access the resources you need quickly and efficiently from legal to administrative to people and gives you rapid access to a larger market. For the job seeker, thriving entrepreneurship means more jobs, more choice of jobs and therefore an implicit safety net that if one job doesn’t work out there are other jobs to be found. For the consumer it means more products available just outside your doorstep. There is immense value in all this.

But simple agglomeration is not all it’s about. There are so many elements to a thriving city. One of the advantages of people living in close proximity is that resources can be distributed efficiently. Geoffrey West and his colleagues for instance have studied cities in the United States and quantify how much electrical cable and pipe you need to reach power and water to people. They show that as city density increases, the kilometres of wire and pipes decreases in sublinear fashion allowing tremendous cost efficiency. Much more so if you bother to plan this. I recently met a former Chennaiite who works with a geospatial analysis company in the United States mapping city water pipes and modelling their flow. All this so it could be made more efficient and faults could be rapidly detected and repaired. Thambi, the Chennai water department told him when he went to meet them, this is very nice but what can we do with this here?

Then there is another extraordinarily important element of how new migrants to a city are integrated. How easy it is to connect yourself when you get there – first to the wiring of electricity, telephone, water, gas and sewage and then to information about the cities resources. Can you arrive and just plug-in and play or do you wander around lost for days standing in unproductive lines? Can you easily find the resources you need or do you wander around alleyways searching for products and services? In cities, if you calculated travel distance to resources I imagine you would come up with extraordinary non-linear benefits as well, particularly if information were well organized and transport was efficient. And if people could plug and play quickly, they can move quickly and efficiently to productivity.

In the world there are cities operating smoothly like a fit organism with strong circulation and fast nervous signalling allowing fast thinking and strong and quick responsiveness. And then there are disorganized dense masses of humanity that operate like broken creatures, frequently suffering from functional paralysis due to a breakdown in the supply of critical elements – like an organism suffering frequent heart attacks and strokes.

Here in India, I wonder about the future of our cities as roads are increasingly choked and infrastructure is not well planned and unable to reconfigure to changing needs. In my crystal ball there are two things that I see: a migration of people to the more planned cities that are popping up on the outskirts of today’s big urban masses and new agglomerations emerging out of our rural landscape. With 700 million people now living in small fragmented rural communities, if we are able to make good on an agenda of inclusion, bringing knowledge, information and capital into these areas, we will find scattered villages slowly clustering together to become towns and then cities as people move to take advantage of the benefits of proximity. I’m betting that our urban landscape will reconfigure faster than we imagine.

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