Cities are the engine rooms for economic advantage on the chessboard of global competition. They throb with the possibility of what could be, where the power of intellect and muscle are brought together in an exotic mix to avail their ingredients to the entrepreneurialship of human ingenuity.
Yet despite their potency, there is something else that a city needs to fan the flames of economic growth. Beneath the foot traffic of its pavement, urban underbellies are underlain with infrastructure that convert raw materials into products and services. Power, water, transport systems and communications are the pistons that drive the ebb and flow of trade and industry. Cities move and morph and forge the economy forward, all within a day.
And those who occupy its nooks and crannies are ideally the first to benefit from its good graces.
It is worth stepping back to consider how it is that they came about and what it was that brought them into existence. It is worth considering how is it that this formula has been magically repeated with an uncanny consistency in countries around the globe over hundreds of years.
It is unlikely that the founding fathers all got the same “how to build a successful metropolis” memo. However, they appear to have in fact stumbled on the same logic on how to transform a small hamlet into a burgeoning powerhouse of humanity. At some point in time, cities all had a beginning. They all started as an open area, fording a river or neighbouring a port, to enable the transit of goods and raw materials. Coupling this advantage with the region’s proximity to arable land, these settlements provided ripe ingredients for agriculture, trade and industry to thrive and diversify over time.
But the world we live in today is changing. As climate change radically impacts on the arability of surrounding regions, we no longer have the luxury of unclaimed coastlines and ample resources. As fossil fuels deplete, energy costs increase at an unchecked pace.
As consumers become more informed, companies are striving to find a new elixir for success. If it is cities that drive economic growth, have the rules on their chessboard changed and, if they have, what checkmate strategy should a nation do to reposition itself in the global competition stakes?
In his book, The Weather Makers – The History and Future Impact of Climate, Prof Tim Flannery postulates that urban visionaries will have to author a new ‘city play book’. In a world of declining natural resources and rampant escalation of energy costs, where consumers are choosing to buy with an ecological conscience, Flannery says the critical factor for city creation will be different in the future. Future cities will hinge on access to low cost renewable energy.
With urban peripheries already bulging at the seams, countries will have to find new spaces that can optimise the use of alternative energies to desalinate water and convert land into something arable and liveable. Low cost renewable energy will become a city’s kryptonite, allowing businesses to satisfy their sustainable credentials for an ever discerning and demanding connected consumer generation.
Flannery even went a step further by envisioning a brand new city that he calls ‘Geothermia’.
By tapping into the abundance of subterranean heat and solar potential of central Australia, Geothermia would operate as an inland city on its own – “a city not of thousands but of hundreds of thousands ̶ a place with its own critical mass,” says Flannery. The abundance of space would give lots of breathing room for building, agriculture or industry, as well as solar collectors to run the city on emissions-free power.
The model makes an interesting case for radical new thinking around old patterns of urbanisation. Rather than pressing ‘repeat’ and doing more of the same thing to accommodate the influx, Geothermia hits the ‘reset’ button on traditional city building. It offers an altogether ‘other’ narrative that requires insight, urgency and a good dose of grit to jump off the fossil fuel bandwagon and tap into uncharted forms of renewable energy.
But there are other needed ingredients that go into the secret sauce to make this future city vision a reality.
A vibrant and efficient inland transport system would be essential to the process to feed this new conglomeration. Efficiency through smart rail would be the artery needed to pump life giving blood to this theoretical concept. Though travel by air, car, bus or train would probably remain the transport of choice, inland cities would need a well-designed, highly efficient, low-cost rail system to get all those bulky goods and raw materials from one place to another.
Round off the trifecta with an ubiquitous high-speed communication network, and you may be looking at a persuasive formula for future urban design.
Granted, we are all out of our depths when it comes to costing the vision. Through experimentation and analysis, experts are still tallying up the total. It would definitely be expensive – frighteningly expensive. But let’s face it – the alternative of carrying on ‘as is’ could be even more costly down the line.
National building projects are expensive – but if the pay day is commercial advantage for your nation for the next 50-100 years, perhaps Return on Investment isn’t that bad. What’s more, when you compare that to the very large cost of having to put roads in tunnels to beat congestion and turn houses into high rises to meet the occupancy density – perhaps the equations start to balance out.
In the long run, a Band Aid approach delays the inevitable dysfunction and economic downgrade of an oversaturated city with big appetites for limited space and natural resources. So, the question is, do we want to pay now…or pay later? The latter is most probably a price none of us can afford.
In our current connected world of globalised trade, it seems everybody is trying to outwit the opponent and gain the upper hand advantage. But the problem is the fundamental recipe for city building still has not changed. Our problems, and the nature of our solutions to those problems, are still cut from the same block despite the fact that energy cost escalation and climate change is changing all around us, and we are not developing a compelling economic strategy despite these undeniable trends.
Maybe nation building inland transport systems and countrywide high-speed communication systems are exactly the “surprise surprise” we need to get in front of the competition and stay there in a climate-challenged world. The existing business model only perpetuates the same cycles of rampant exploitation and consumption which, if unaltered, could potentially dig our own financial graves. A radically different paradigm is in order. It’s risky and unknown and will require big picture thinking of all new proportions. But with tools and technologies paving the way to these solutions, this fresh new thinking may carry the economic equivalent of a global checkmate.