What are the challenges facing large cities over the next 50 years, how will cities becomes ‘smarter’, what risks do digital technologies introduce, and will a global parliament of mayors help or hinder?

At the end of last year, as part of my studies into smart cities and urban analytics, I wrote an essay exploring some of the challenges likely to face large cities in the next 50 years and whether or not the newly formed Global Parliament of Mayors can help tackle them. The following is a shortened version. If you are interested in the original essay, please contact me.


The Global Parliament of Mayors (GPM) is currently a voluntary project that is developing a pilot to be launched in 2015 based on the belief that city mayors are better positioned than nation state leaders to tackle socio-economic challenges facing urban environments, a space that the majority of the global population now resides within. Details can be found at the web site http://www.globalparliamentofmayors.org/

Challenges facing large cities

(Note: Five were outlined in the original essay. Two have been included here.)

Rising inequalities


“Any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one of the poor, the other of the rich.”

Inequality has been a recognised trait in cities for over two millennia, as observed by Plato in 360BC, “any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one of the city of the poor, the other of the rich.” There is no mention of the existence of a middle class. In the 2013 book ‘Who Owns The Future?’ Jaron Lanier argues that a middle-class status has not proven to be stable without government intervention. Lanier raises the concern that globalisation and digital technology is disrupting twentieth century safety-nets by (re)creating a ‘star system’ where a small number of people receive significant gains in wealth whilst the majority receive little or no return.

A 2006 study by OECD (Ford, 2013) identified that automation had resulted in more job losses than offshoring. The risk to increasing inequality is that the majority of new jobs being created are divided between high volume low-paid, low-skilled jobs that still require some degree of human intervention and low-volume high-paid specialist cognitive tasks that require an advanced education and expertise. It is not yet clear how governments will tackle this issue and the implications it creates for tax generation and distribution. The same is also true for infrastructure services that may experience increasing demand and reduced funding if a larger percentage of the population is permanently and unwillingly trapped in low-income jobs that lead to a long-term decline in real wages.

The UN estimates nearly a third of city populations live in slums. If that number continues to grow, the outcome will impact a range of socio-economic issues including health, education, crime and social mobility, leading to diminishing prospects for the individuals affected and the cities they reside within.

New economic models

Instead of criminalising informal activities, maybe it is time for governments to embrace them…


The second challenge is also perhaps the biggest opportunity. Digital technology combined with current social and economic pressures has led to the rise of new business models that are disrupting many traditional financial structures.

One model that is growing in popularity is the ‘Sharing economy,’ also referred to as the ‘Collaborative economy’, where individuals share under-utilised resources directly with one another. In developed countries, this is often motivated by profit, convenience, and opportunity. Examples include car-sharing networks reducing the need for car ownership at a lower cost than taxis and car-rentals, and occupying spare rooms in a home as an alternative to hotels.

In developing countries, a sharing economy is more likely to have been established through survival needs in slums. Such areas are often unrecognised by governments and lack a formal infrastructure. Instead, inhabitants work together to provide the essentials for accommodation, electricity and water, along with developing local commerce through street trading. This model is often referred to as a shadow or informal economy, unrecognised in government statistics. One of the most prominent examples is Kibera, a slum district within Nairobi. Until recently, government land-use maps showed Kibera as what it used to be over 100 years ago – a forest (Batty, 2013). In reality it is home to 250,000 people living in sub-standard conditions.

It is estimated that 1.8 billion jobs have been created by the sharing and informal economies. By 2020 the informal economy is expected to grow to include two thirds of the global workforce, according to the OECD. Government reactions have tended towards criminalising or ignoring these models. Unless viable alternatives are created, perhaps the solution is to embrace them and acknowledge their contribution to the city economy. A similarity in all sharing models is achieving the same or better performance from fewer resources. Such an approach could play a key role in helping achieve a more sustainable city.

The Potential for a Global Parliament of Mayors


Inclusive or exclusive?
– Smart City Forum 2013

City mayors are well positioned to tackle the issues outlined above because many of the issues are influenced by, and have an immediate impact on, the local environment, community and economy. However it is less clear how a Global Parliament of Mayors (GPM) will contribute beyond providing a supportive forum for mayors to share experiences, with a view to reproducing and scaling successful initiatives.

The value from such a forum should not be underestimated. Significant lessons learned at the local level could be of great benefit to other cities. For example, seeking to avoid the mistakes that led to the decline and bankruptcy of Detroit, or understanding how congestion charge schemes have affected traffic and pollution levels in London and Stockholm. Sharing data and methods used for city innovations could accelerate adoption on a global scale. Given the growing interdependence between large cities and focus on sustainability, there is mutual gain from the global modernisation of city infrastructure and services.

However, as is explained on the web site and in the planning sessions held in September 2014, the GPM is not proposing to be a community or forum. It is intended to be an institution that can provide ‘a global revolution in democratic governance in which cities and urban leaders, public and private alike can and will make the difference’.


The advantage of a GPM would be the ability to cooperate on global matters that have a similar impact on cities regardless of their local variations. For example, climate change initiatives require global alignment and many cities have the same weaknesses in their infrastructure in terms of building construction inefficiencies and the risks created by extreme weather events. The GPM could play a central role in fostering universal agreement about how cities can reduce energy consumption and work towards meeting global climate change targets.

The same benefits apply to the roll out of a digital infrastructure. Currently, cities are tending to build their own solutions. In his book Smart Cities, Anthony Townsend highlighted that in Germany alone, twenty four cities each developed their own mobile applications for parking. Whilst such an approach benefits each local economy, it inevitably leads to waste and inefficiency, and can be frustrating for citizens who interact with services across multiple cities.


Whilst a GPM would foster cooperation between cities, it may not be a fair representation. Attendance at the September 2014 planning session was dominated by European and US mayors. There was little representation from developing cities in Africa, Asia or South America. There is also the subject of deciding who can or cannot participate. If the focus is on mayors regardless of their nation state, the GPM could lend credibility to rogue cities such as the current Islamic State Group occupation of Ar-Raqqa in Syria.

New and developing cities face similar challenges to well-established ones but will need or choose very different solutions. There are significant regional differences, such as the level of privacy afforded to citizens, the level of state intervention and openness about government affairs. It may be difficult for a GPM to resolve conflicts if global governance decisions favour one group over others. There are also differences within similar regions. Cities in the US are separated by much larger distances than cities in Europe and adopt very different approaches to urban planning such as the provision of green-belt land to constrain city growth. Within Europe, there are different attitudes towards informal and illegal economic activities, such as whether or not to include prostitution in national income figures.

The Transition to Smarter Cities

Do we need digital city standards akin to those that scaled the world-wide web?

Smart cities are in their infancy and currently lack standards. Cities are adopting advanced and complex technologies in isolation that should raise concerns about what proprietary methods may be implemented that could constrain future developments. Perhaps one of the most powerful benefits the GPM could provide would be to adopt a similar position to that of the Worldwide Web Consortium and Internet Engineering Taskforce who played a pivotal role in establishing open standards that are commonplace today on the Internet, used by everyone from a solo web site to a global e-commerce platform.

Creating smart cities will mean implementing the most complicated and interdependent information systems to date. Cascading failures could be catastrophic to the wellbeing of the city population. A GPM could focus on establishing disaster resilience and recovery planning, similar to that being implemented within the financial sector in an attempt to avoid a future financial crisis of the magnitude experienced in the past decade.

Concluding Thoughts


Cities evolve based on their interactions and innovations, planned and unplanned. Those evolutions bring unexpected consequences. Mayors could be in the best position to understand and respond to local issues and priorities as they emerge. But risk being biased by a personal agenda or experiences that may not be representative of the majority of the city population.

A Global Parliament of Mayors (GPM) could provide oversight and direction to help avoid repeating the mistakes made in long-term urban planning and design during the twentieth century, and ensure cooperation on global issues that cannot be resolved by any one city or nation state alone. It could lead the way in establishing global standards to create more resilient and connected cities.

A concern is that the GPM will focus on exerting top-down initiatives or struggle to find common agreement due to differences between cities. How will mega-cities be governed globally? As a single entity or multiple cities within a city? What about small but influential cities such as Palo Alto in California? It is difficult to envisage how effective a GPM can be beyond providing a supportive community for peers managing systems of a scale in size, complexity and responsiveness that have never previously been experienced.


Batty, Michael. (2013) The New Science of Cities. MIT Press

Ford, Martin. (2009) The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future. Acculant Publishing.

Greenfield, Adam. (2014) Against the smart city. Do projects.

Jacobs, Jane. (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Vintage Books edition, December 1992

Jütting, Johannes and de Laiglesia, Juan. (2009) Is Informal Normal? OECD Development Centre

Lanier, Jaron. (2013) Who owns the Future? Penguin Books.

Neuwirth, Robert (2011) Global Bazaar. Scientific American 305(3), 56-63.

Putnam, Robert. (2007) Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century. Scandinavian Political Studies, Vol. 30 – No. 2.

Sassen, Saskia. (1991) The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton University Press.

Scientific American (2014) Designing the Urban Future: Smart Cities, collection of articles published from 2004 to 2014

Townsend, Anthony M. (2013) Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hacker, and The Quest For a New Utopia. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Images kindly shared under Creative Commons license on Flickr:

flickr-SeattleFeatured image: Shining City (Far) by sea turtle. Stunning image of the Seattle skyline

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