Having a conversation with Parag Khanna is like looking into a crystal ball. International relations expert, leading futurologist and bestselling author, Khanna was born in India, raised in New York and educated in Europe.
Career highlights include appointments at the World Economic Forum, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and the White House, plus as a Senior Geopolitical Advisor to US Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In short, if anyone knows what the future is likely to hold, it’s him.
Completing a trilogy of influential treaties on the new world order with Connectography: Mapping The Future Of Global Civilisation, Khanna argues that we’re heading towards a planet dominated by a network of interconnected megacities—an evolutionary process which is already well underway, especially across the Asia Pacific region.
‘Most of the world’s population lives within a three-hour flight radius of Hong Kong,’ says Khanna, genial, passionate, brimming with ungraspable facts. ‘That’s almost five billion people. It’s an area less than one-tenth of the world’s total land area, but it’s more than fifty per cent of the entire population.
‘For your lifetime and mine, that statistic will remain true—most of the world’s population will live in that small circle. It’s part of what motivated me to move to Singapore. No one who lives in London or New York or Berlin will know what that feels like to have five billion neighbours—and I tell you, it’s really special. It’s empowering.’
Mapping the future
Predicting that more than two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030, Khanna has mapped the genesis of ‘urban archipelagos’ that are already linking densely populated, uniquely interconnected megacities across the globe.
Talking to TED audiences in February 2016, Khanna identified the key sprawls, corridors and megalopolises that are starting to redefine our geography—pointing to Chinese clusters like the Bohai Economic Rim around Bejing, the Yangtze River Delta around Shanghai, the Pearl River Delta stretching from Hong Kong to Guangzhou and the massive Chongqing/Chengdu urban mass—each housing close to 100 million people.
‘Cities are the only way to harness those kind of numbers,’ Khanna explains. ‘You can’t possibly achieve rapid economic growth without urbanisation. Ever since the industrial revolution, that’s how you grow. People move to cities and they have access to social services, to health care, to education, skills, jobs… and they make money—which is how an economy grows.
‘But for businesses, these megacities matter more than the notion of countries. Any one of them is potentially of larger economic value than half of Africa. Lagos alone has an economy that’s half of Kenya.’
‘Our single most ancient impulse is to travel – to move, to connect. For sixty thousand years mankind has been wandering out of Africa and we’ve never stopped wandering.’
But do we all want to live in a megacity? Is rapid urbanisation really the right answer when social and environmental issues are already posing such a serious threat?
‘I’m not Pollyannish, and I’m not even sure I’m an optimist,’ he muses, ‘but I am 100 percent sure that more connectivity is better than less. We just have to remember that countries will inevitably screw up before they get it right.
‘China is an interesting example. China is the world’s largest producer of soy, but it also happens to now be the world’s largest importer of soy—precisely because they built so many cities on areas where they used to grow it, particularly in southern China, like Guangzhou. So now China has a directive that says you can’t build on prime, pristine arable land. They’re learning.’
When it comes to developing sustainable technologies Khanna points out that city dwellers are actually being kinder to the planet than their friends in the country.
‘So there’s this curve,’ he explains. ‘Emissions, or consumption, per capita, rise very drastically as people become wealthier—but as a city modernizes and more people use public transportation instead of automobiles, for example, that consumption goes down.
‘In America you can see the full flourishing of this because it’s had the longest time to develop. People who live in rural areas have a much bigger environmental footprint than people who live in cities.’
But what about the social issues of urbanization? What will life really be like for the majority of ordinary people once the Earth has filled up with megacities?
‘I don’t care about inequality,’ says Khanna without even flinching. ‘I don’t care because it’s nothing compared to poverty, which is a different issue. I think most pragmatic people feel the same way. Inequality is inevitable, and it may never go down.
‘We’re in a world of billionaires and soon we’ll be in a world of trillionaires. Statistical inequality is always going to be a big issue and you won’t overcome it. The real question is, as you have upwards of 1.5 to 2 billion more people living in cities by 2025, and a couple of billion people already living in slums today, let’s talk about those 4 billion people and ask ourselves how we reduce their poverty and improve their quality of life.’
We’re better together
The bigger question still is whether or not we even want to be more connected—living in megacities or otherwise. 2016 may have been marred by isolationist movements around the world, but for Khanna connectivity is far more prevalent than division.
‘The important thing to remember is that things like this are a response to a huge amount of connectivity that’s already happened,’ Khanna reasons. ‘Bear in mind that during 2016, 700 million people in South East Asia passed the free labor agreement. So 700 million people are now moving seamlessly across each other’s borders—they’ll never need another visa again.
‘The African Union convened a few months ago and declared that there would be a single African passport by 2020 with full free trade, so that’s complete mobility across more than 1.1 billion people.
‘Sure, megacities can be dangerous, like Sao Paolo, or the traffic can be terrible, like Jakarta, but they’re also incredibly vibrant and different and offer a lot of unique layers of history and modernity.’
‘Both of those things significantly outweigh anything that happens, for example, in the UK. In fact, you could even argue that it’s irrelevant. Two weeks after the UK’s Brexit vote, the data showed that it had zero impact on the world economy. No one thought it would happen, but it was definitely a situation that everyone prepared for. Britain has been ring-fenced by the rest of the world so it can only harm itself.
‘Current events, whether it’s Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump or the conflict in the South China Sea—they have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not people like connectivity.
‘Our single most ancient impulse is to travel – to move, to connect. For sixty thousand years mankind has been wandering out of Africa and we’ve never stopped wandering. Connectivity is certainly far more prominent, historically, than the notion of division. The Greeks, the Persians and the Romans were actually very flexible about their borders—there was always a lot of mingling between different peoples in the border regions.
‘Any empire that’s always felt itself to be the center of the world never felt it should have borders, precisely because they felt that they owned everything. And this isn’t insignificant or just academic: if you think about China, why does China not want to settle its border disputes? Why does it not recognize the sovereignty of others? Precisely because China generally feels, throughout history, that it’s expanded and traveled and migrated and conquered and purchased wherever it wanted to. So the notion that borders are going up everywhere is just sort of a silly presentism.’
Looking to China
Pointing to Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) developmental strategy as an example of the scale of connectivity we can expect to see on political maps of the future, Khanna suggests that once megacities rule the Earth, being able to move freely will become more important than ever. Which is good news for travellers.
‘Just because you can Skype someone, it doesn’t mean that your business is going to get the upper hand unless you’re there on the ground. But more importantly, people travel because they can. Sure, megacities can be dangerous, like Sao Paolo, or the traffic can be terrible, like Jakarta, but they’re also incredibly vibrant and different and offer a lot of unique layers of history and modernity.’
Here’s to the future.
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Photos: Shutterstock; TED