Cities think big

The ability of urban areas to pool resources breeds innovation, which enhances everyone’s quality of life, says the Gates Foundation’s Melanie Walker

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Whether it stems from babies born within the confines of a city or families migrating into municipal boundaries in search of a better life, the world’s urban population is growing by 65m people per year. This may at first seem daunting, but population agglomeration can be a good thing. Concentration of services and resource allocation leads to a smaller carbon footprint, and creates conditions for growth. In fact, it might even be fair to say that urbanisation is a key driver for development, as per capita economic activity increases at least 10 per cent with every 5 percentage point increase in urban population. Further, for every percentage point increase in the urbanisation rate, in many places there is more than a 2 per cent increase in gross domestic product per capita.

Three important qualifications apply: not all growth is equal; not all commercial gains remain in the place they were created; and not all economic activity is accounted for in formal statistical reporting. These implied nuances should not be interpreted as negatives, but instead reflect the incredible resourcefulness and creativity emanating from cities to attract investment, create jobs, and even improve the quality and standard of living for residents.

Cities are laboratories for invention. The time feels right to redefine traditional teaching about market failures to include informal markets, the globalisation of economies, and the notion of risk. What sounds like a great technological solution to someone sitting in a conference room in Silicon Valley might not appeal to the target beneficiary residing in a slum in Harare. Yet, these are the systems and processes we continue to embrace.

Most people equate innovation in goods and services to advances in scientific technology. While this is very important, there is also much to be done around the reinvention of financial tools. Mobilisation of domestic resources through metafinance, the pooling of individuals’ loans or savings, brings the power of community savings to the equation and reduces infrastructure cost. Digitised payment (or identification) systems allow for simplified, transparent billing and collection systems. The power of social media can also be harnessed.

Service delivery tools and structures are outdated too. Advances in infrastructure across all sectors are desperately needed, but tend to fail when aimed either at the poor or the rich exclusively. Creative distribution systems for energy, transport and water offer great potential. Management and information systems for city governments of all sizes that are affordable, adaptable and accessible are lacking.

Introducing concepts and organisations with transformative potential is just the beginning. Investors, development professionals, communities, scientists and governments need to start a realistic discussion about new partnerships and shared vision.

Urbanisation is a platform for development, and cities can be a nexus for large-scale and replicable change. There are incredible opportunities to transform urban development into an equitable, profitable, and sustainable prospect. By inviting new partners to the table, we dream together.


The author is deputy director for special initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

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