Poet D. H. Lawrence wrote, “I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me. That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and my blood is part of the sea,” creating a metaphor of connectedness and implicit oneness with the world. This quote signals the tension between the complex processes at work that govern our existence on Earth by inviting us to be reassured by our embodied entanglement within ecosystems, other than human entities, and microbial others. Reflective of the scope of what this review sets out to accomplish, our article explores these themes among others within the context of the Anthropocene.
We live in the age of distributed superpowers, where global impact is as likely to come from market-leading institutions as it is from individual teenagers. Where every new opportunity is created and monetized more quickly than the last, but every vulnerability is discovered and exploited at an equally frantic pace. Where markets and supply chains are more efficient and interconnected than ever before, cities larger and more diverse, tools cheaper and more capable, but economic disparities are wider and more contested, political institutions rockier and more distrusted, and temperatures hotter and more extreme.
The first thing to recognize is that we are in a macro process of transformation that implies a reconfiguration of all of our systems of organization; social, economic, technological and environmental. In the same way that we can now see how the transition from a pre-modern to a modern society over time reconfigured all of our systems of organization, the current transition that we are going through will do the same over the course of the coming decades. This is to recognize that the solutions we developed in the Industrial Age will be replaced by a new set of solutions that are aligned with the new context enabled by information networks.
The interconnectivity and interdependence of our global systems have undoubtedly created new and previously inconceivable risks, but at the same time, they’ve enabled previously unattainable efficiencies, supercharged innovation, and empowered individuals and startups with new abilities. These dynamics have led to a world in which it’s no longer surprising to see tiny players make global impacts, from an individual reshaping international politics to a business scaling from zero to billions of dollars in a couple of years.
Power—the ability to shape consequences—has traditionally flowed from the top down. But in this tightly coupled and complex landscape, power flows in all directions: not just top-down or bottom-up but across industries, continents, and stakeholders of all scales.
Today’s international political and legal system was established in the post-war years which placed nation states at the center of global governance. Cities have been absent and are power-light.
More than half the world’s population lives in cities and by mid-century it is expected that more than two thirds will. Most of the challenges, crises, and opportunities of this century will occur in cities and nearly every major threat defies national boundaries, requiring global and local solutions. More and more cities band together in networks to pierce, participate in and transcend the current political world order. Their growing success and profile is described as ‘municipal internationalism’, ‘transnational municipal networking.
2020 – 2030
The ten-year horizon promises new capacities to effect change at unprecedented speed and scale, but also with consequences—both intentional and unforeseen—that arrive just as quickly and will continue to reverberate long after we’re gone. The concept of the Anthropocene elevates the human species into a geological force that is bringing about a planetary shift. The impacts of human activities, so the argument goes, have moved the Earth system away from the Holocene and into a new geological era, namely the Anthropocene. If our geological époque is said to be that of mankind, equally widespread is the idea that we live in an urban age. This has profound implications.
THE ANTHROPOCENE HAS ARRIVED. . . AND PLANETARY URBANIZATION IS ITS GEOGRAPHICAL FORM.
All dominant environmental visions, such as resilience or sustainability, are based on the idea that the future of the planet, including humans and non-humans, depends on what will happen in and to cities, not least because of the impacts of urban networks on the Earth system.
The Anthropocene encapsulates a world of intertwined drivers, complex dynamic structures, emergent phenomena, and unintended consequences, manifest across different scales and subject to multiple and linked biophysical and social constraints. Yet while the concept Anthropocene reflects the nature, scale and magnitude of human impacts on the Earth, its societal significance lies in how it can be used to explore and guide attitudes, choices, decisions and actions that will reverberate far into the future.
One of the most important challenges the hypothesis of the Anthropocene brings forward is that it calls for a rethinking of the ontological divide between nature and society. Interactions and changing relationships between human and nonhumans, ecological processes and all other aspects of the world around us contribute towards the functioning and changing of the Earth System. Servicing the unrestricted demands of massive modern urban populations has replaced so much biodiverse biomass with human biomass and plantation monocultures that it has resulted in anthropogenic mass extinction at a rate only recorded after massive global catastrophes in the past. There is strong evidence that the world is on track for a ‘sixth extinction’, that is to say, a spike in the rate of species loss on a scale that has only occurred five times before in the history of the earth.
Anthropos is a force causing so much disturbance to natural cycles such as climate, to environments such as oceans and forests, and to diverse microbiomes on which life depends, that it is rapidly reducing biological and cultural diversity.
The world, cities, consists of ever multiplying socio-natural quasi-objects: human and non-human assemblages that are nature–society hybrids that exercise their own influence in shaping socio-ecological dynamics, relations, and politics. The understanding of the urban as the field in which the nature/society dichotomy evaporates, in turn dissolving the clear opposition between city and nature. In the city, society and nature, representation and being are inseparable, integral to each other, infinitely bound-up, yet simultaneously this hybrid socio-natural ‘thing’ called the city is full of contradictions, tensions and conflicts.
True adaptive capacity in our urban environments would be about ‘things’, actors and nature interacting with each other, peer-to peer so that they can self-organize to find optimal outcomes. This is a shift from optimizing components in isolation to optimizing for the connections and synergies.
Too often we use technology for quite the opposite, continuing along the centralized route, aggregating data, processing it according to black box algorithms and pushing it out to determine the operations of the city and its citizens without them being aware of it. The ultimate result of this is in many ways a city that is less adaptive and more impersonal; in this respect, it might be good to keep in mind that the best cities are not the most efficient they are cities that are dynamic with lots of interaction between people. The emphasis has to shift from delivering solutions by creating more mass to delivering solutions through creating synergies, that make the whole system more efficient and thus deliver more with less.
The Anthropocene and urbanization, especially if considered together, undeniably herald big changes on the horizon. It is hard to dispute that, in one way or the other, we are in a new political era, in which futurity is conditioned by the consequences of a changing planet.
The risks and potential disruptions that we face can seem daunting, but they need not be paralyzing. By immersing ourselves in the driving forces and extreme possibilities of the next ten years, we can prepare for the pitfalls and find the transformational opportunities of the coming decade.
FROM FIXED ASSETS TO ADAPTIVE SYSTEMS.
Over the last century, the polycentric city structure has emerged as centralized cities have become increasingly connected to satellite cities and rural hinterlands, giving rise to the metropolises, the multicentric megacities, and ultimately our modern networked megaregions. In concert with these structural changes, the function of cities has also evolved. Infrastructural and technological progress, the emergence of service- and knowledge-based economies, and the accompanying increase in teleconnections, interdependence, and regional and global integration are the evidence of cities’ rapid shift from industrial productivity toward economic diversification.
The urban environments that we engineered during the 20th century -and still do- were fundamentally static in their nature. Processes that were designed in isolation to function in a linear fashion lack integration with other systems in their environment. The result is a dead-end effect and the production of waste that will be destructive to some other subsystem, rendering the whole system less functional.
These infrastructure systems were designed for stable and predictable environments, they operate within a well-defined normal set of parameters and resist change. This makes them inert, non-responsive and degenerative over time; we build a road once and then it goes through a linear lifecycle degrades every year. Today the combination of a changing environment and new possibilities enabled by the convergence of technologies means that we need to switch the focus towards adaptive systems that are able to respond to the speed of changes within their environment.
The application of these technologies is about making every aspect of the designed and build environment and infrastructure system adaptive and responsive. ‘Fluidity’ and the ability to evolve.
RESIGNIFYING THE CITY
The challenge of cities today is not just one of scale, speed and scarcity of resources but on a more fundamental level, it is one of complexity. Cities are the center of civilization and thus express a complex set of social, ecological, technological and economic factors; these forces that shape our built environments come from very different realms and often pull in very different directions. In an age of globalization and information technology, the urban equation that we are dealing with today has become a lot more complex. This requires us to take our thinking to a new level of abstraction, to bring more powerful theoretical and analytical tools to derive deeper insight and clarity; to try and understand our urban environments as the complex engineered systems they are. For solutions to be realized every dimension and aspect of this very complex network of interacting variables needs to be considered and considered as a whole in order to achieve a comprehensive understanding.
Cities must rethink themselves in the context of planetary change. The emergence of complex interactions among human, natural, economic, social and technological systems and the uncertain trajectories that characterize urban futures require that cities critically review their assumptions and expand their capacity to ask new questions. Urbanization is driving systemic changes in socioeconomic ecological structures by accelerating rates of interactions among people and places, multiplying numbers and strengths of connections, and expanding the spatial scales and influences of human activities to global levels. It is increasingly evident that cities amplify the consequences associated with globalization such as the movements of people and products, access to, and disruption of natural resources, and threats to biodiversity.
Convergence and interactions of functional, structural, and social changes result in challenges of unprecedented complexity for city governments. To understand how cities emerge, function and evolve, we must study urbanization as a process that simultaneously transforms places, populations, societies, and the environment.
To navigate the transformation phase, it is necessary that we understand cities as integrated social, economic, and physical systems in more precise and predictive ways. This requires qualitative models of the internal structures of cities and of the interactions between cities and the Earth’s natural environments that account for the processes of human development and economic growth, as well as their feedbacks on patterns of urban development. As successive, predictable shocks destabilize our civilization the insight ‘how cities work’ will give cities, previously gridlocked by polarization, the power and ability to take decisive action.
The Decision Support Model generates insight in the internal and external threats and opportunities to their internal and unintended consequences in relation to the most ‘desirable future’. There is no going back, no return to ‘normal’. Cities are at a rupture point and the old rules no longer apply.