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Who's Your Megacity? The 21st Century Metropolis

06/18/2014 02:09 am ET | Updated Aug 17, 2014

Although the Richard Florida vs. Joel Kotkin debate over America's urban-suburban future rages on, the future of cities is a critically important subject for American policymakers, urban planners, and citizens.

In fact, aside from global aging, one of the greatest global trends in 21st century life is urbanization. America industrialized and urbanized in the late 19th century and early 20th and then pioneered suburbanization. But, globally the story is very different. The world is urbanizing rapidly.

To better understand the implications of this as a public opinion researcher and a futurist, I attended the New Cities Summit as a representative of the World Future Society. Held this year in Dallas, Texas, the New Cities Summit is a tour de force of urban evolution.

When it comes to 21st century urbanism, there are a plethora of emerging trends, weak signals and alternative futures. There are discussions around green cities with vertical farming, resilient cities capable of taking economic and environmental shocks, walkable cities, cultural hub cities and even the city as aerotropolis -- a city built around a global hub airport.

But, on a global level, the reality of 21st century urban life is far less exotic. While the West and developed nations that made the rural to urban shift decades ago focus on the non-material aspects of city life, the Rest (developing nations) will undergo extremely rapid urbanization and focus on far more basic issues. For example, in 2014 the world's population was 50 percent urban with 23 megacities (a megacity has a population of over 10,000,000). By 2025 60 percent of the global population will be urban and the world will have 37 megacities. And it is highly likely that these megacities will not only shape their inhabitants' attitudes, but will shape national and global governance.

We see this now in America today with highly distinctive urban, suburban and rural voting patterns. But, more challenging is the rise of the globally integrated megacity. In reality, if you live in an American city today you live in either a regional, national or global city. And this makes an enormous difference in your tastes, political beliefs and the ideas you bump into. Regional cities are regional banking and health care hubs servicing a regional market and attracting a regional workforce. National cities are larger, with greater air travel service and attracting a national level workforce. But global megacities (like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc.) are fully integrated into the global economy, with ample non-stop airline service to other global cities and a global workforce. And this is where it gets interesting, because these global megacities house a globally connected elite that is pulling away from the traditional nation-state. As one panelist, Arturo Sarukhan the former Mexican ambassador to the United States, observed, "we are going back to the early Renaissance where city-states are playing an increasing role." This is undoubtedly true. Megacity mayors routinely lead trade delegations and influence the political dialogue of their respective nation-states. Michael Bloomberg and Boris Johnson come leaping to mind as obvious examples.

If the idea of globally integrated megacities rivalling the nation state or the idea of megacity mayors conducting peer to peer diplomacy (what Parag Khanna called "diplomacity"), it shouldn't. The US National Intelligence Council (NIC), the long term strategic analysis arm of the Director of National Intelligence seriously considers this exact scenario in its Global Trends 2030 report under a scenario titled "Non-State World." In this scenario the nation-state is forced to share power with megacities, NGOs and transnational groups. And, quoting directly from the study, "Mayors of mega-cities take a lead in ramping up regional and global cooperation."

Richard Florida's famous book asks provocatively "Who's your City?" But, the New Cities Summit suggests that a better question is "Who's your megacity?"