The world is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history, bringing huge social, economic and environmental transformations. Urbanization has the potential to usher in a new era of well-being, resource efficiency and economic growth. But cities are also home to high concentrations of poverty. Nowhere is the rise of inequality clearer than in urban areas, where wealthy communities coexist alongside, and separate from, slums and informal settlements. The face of inequality is increasingly even in our Western cities. Too many urban residents grapple with extreme poverty, exclusion, vulnerability and marginalization.
At the same time we wonder about the 4th industrial revolution, all this talk at the moment about the Internet of Things, Big Data and Cyber-Physical Systems is garnering mixed reactions, ranging from excited and curious to fearful and resistant. If this an unstoppable movement, and must consider implications. How will the workforce keep up and evolve? What will a regular work day be like in 2, 5, or 10 years? Will the factory of the future even need people in it? There are conflicting views on whether more or less staff will be needed to handle numerous new systems and technology tools. Interestingly, there seems to be consensus that new or different capabilities will be expected of existing and new workers – including fundamental competencies that go far beyond obvious technical skills like data management, analytics and technology know-how.
Martha Nussbaum has elaborated the concept of capabilities across ten domains including: not dying prematurely, being able to have good health, having bodily integrity, being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason, having freedom of emotional expression, practical reasoning enabling planning of one’s life, affiliation with others in conditions that engender self-respect and non-discrimination, having concern for other species, being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities, being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life and having control over one’s material environment.
Socioeconomic status forms a huge part of the development of fundamental competencies. Children raised in poverty rarely choose to behave differently, but they are faced daily with overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront, and their brains have adapted to suboptimal conditions in ways that undermine good school performance. Behavior stems from a combination of genes and environment. Genes begin the process: behavioral geneticists commonly claim that DNA accounts for 30–50 percent of our behaviors, an estimate that leaves 50–70 percent explained by environment.
This tidy division of influencing factors may be somewhat misleading, however. First, the effects of the nine months a child spends in utero are far from negligible, especially on IQ. Factors such as quality of prenatal care, exposure to toxins, and stress have a strong influence on the developing child. In addition, epigenetics blurs the line between nature and nurture. Environment affects the receptors on our cells, which send messages to genes, which turn various functional switches on or off. It’s like this: like light switches, genes can be turned on or off. When they’re switched on, they send signals that can affect the processes or structures in individual cells.
Many low-SES (social economic status) children face emotional and social instability. Typically, the weak or anxious attachments formed by infants in poverty become the basis for full-blown insecurity during the early childhood years. Very young children require healthy learning and exploration for optimal brain development. Unfortunately, in impoverished families there tends to be a higher prevalence of such adverse factors as teen motherhood, depression, and inadequate health care, all of which lead to decreased sensitivity toward the infant and, later, poor school performance and behavior on the child’s part. The most significant risk factors affecting children raised in poverty:
- Emotional and Social Challenges.
- Acute and Chronic Stressors.
- Cognitive Lags.
- Health and Safety Issues.
Combined, these factors present an extraordinary challenge to academic and social success. This reality does not mean that success in school or life is impossible. On the contrary, a better understanding of these challenges points to actions educators can take to help their less-advantaged students succeed. Stressors experienced in sensitive development periods during early childhood affect biological stress regulatory systems, neural mechanisms by which stress responses are regulated in the brain, and the expression of genes related to stress responses29 A bleak picture of children raised in poverty. Certainly not all children raised in poverty experience the brain and behavioral changes, but an aggregation of disadvantages creates a difficult web of negatives. Poverty penetrates deeper into the body, brain, and soul than we realize.
Consequently, as they enter (early) adulthood, many young people are less likely to enter the workforce or postsecondary educational institutions. Furthermore, many (government) institutions that have an impact on the lives of families focus more on regulating and controlling behavior than on improving skills and providing opportunity. Inner-city neighborhoods are often where dynamics collide. Low income parents are often severely constrained in their ability to help guide their children’s engagement with critical facilitators of upward mobility, such as schools, and it is left to youth themselves to formulate and exercise strategic choices that might prove to be avenues out of poverty. These youth are seriously impeded, however, as a result of the gap between the knowledge they accumulate in the restrictive social environment in which they operate and the skills and know-how they need to transcend it. Confronting poverty and inequality in the inner city requires that we recognize the complex, interrelated problems facing poor and low income families. This necessitates an effective, sustained, and coordinated mission of government-funded institutions to support opportunities for economic self-sufficiency.
With evolving technologies constantly impacting the way people work (or have to work), continuous training and a willingness to learn and change will be required of all workers now and even more in the future.
One major step towards resilient cities is to take a life-course perspective that recognizes the influences that operate at each stage of life can change the vulnerability and exposure to harmful processes, or stressors. Social arrangements and institutions, like preschool, school, the labor market and pension systems have a significant impact on the opportunities that empower people to choose their own course in life. These social arrangements and institutions differ enormously and their structures and impacts are, to greater or lesser extent, influenced or mitigated by national and transnational policies.
Change is both exciting and intimidating. I do wonder, with the 4th Industrial Revolution coming, how ready is our future workforce? I think you know my answer.