Whether within or between countries, by choice or by force, these trends demonstrate that people are definitely on the move. As the global population grows, so do rates of urbanization and migration, with potentially significant social, political, and environmental implications (see ‘Age groups’).
There are a multitude of factors pushing people to move, including economic development, conflict, political instability and, increasingly, the impacts of climate change. More people live outside their country of birth than ever before and many of them end up in cities, which are growing in number, in size and in importance. Indeed, the power of cities as economic and social centers could potentially see them overtake countries as the dominant political entities in future (see ‘Changing trade patterns’). If managed well, urban centers will foster social and economic development and more sustainable living. But in places where the pace of growth outstrips the resources to support it, this trend could compound social inequalities and lead to greater conflict.
Increasingly, people are moving from rural areas to cities, resulting in significant growth in urban populations. People are seeking the economic opportunities and increased quality of life that living in cities can offer. It is expected that 70% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2045.
For individuals, urban life can offer many opportunities: improved access to services like education and healthcare, daily conveniences offered by urban infrastructure and access to broader job markets. The benefits for society as a whole are significant: cities are associated with economic growth, wealth generation and innovation. Cities are extremely productive and contribute more than 80% of global ross domestic product (GDP).
For cities, increased population inflows can create strain on resources and challenges for city planners and resource managers.
Urbanization can be seen as a double-edged sword – it offers the possibility of increased social and economic development alongside the risk of compounding social inequity. Particularly in the developing world, where urban planning has not anticipated substantial growth and resources are already stretched, increasing urbanization may create problems as well as opportunities in the coming decades. Historically, unplanned or informal urban settlements have exacerbated inequalities and, in many countries, service provision in these areas is not keeping pace with urban population growth. Rapid urbanization could lead to conflict in places where resources are insufficient and/or poorly managed, but where it is well-managed it may yield significant benefits to urbanizing populations.
Multiple city ‘types’ are expected to increase in number in the coming decades. Much of the attention around urbanization is focused on so-called ‘mega-cities’, usually defined as having populations of at least 10 million.[6,7,8] While the number of mega-cities is expected to grow, the bulk of the growth in cities will occur in ‘small’ (under 1 million inhabitants), ‘medium’ sized (1-5 million inhabitants) and ‘large’ (5-10 million inhabitants) cities. The World Bank offers a classification of large cities:
- Global hubs – cities that wealth and talent flow though. Examples include Singapore, London, and New York
- Mega-cities – cities with large populations that are ‘population magnets’ for their respective regions. Examples include Mumbai, Sao Paolo, Jakarta
- Gateway cities – cities that function as part of regional clusters that facilitate access to specific markets. Examples include Dubai, Almaty, Johannesburg
Thinking of these functions of cities raises interesting questions for city planners and for the role of cities in global trade, both physical and digital. According to the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (2019), “When we say 2030 will be urban, this is not merely an expression of residency, it will be the way of life of society as a whole.”
Perhaps paradoxically, cities can provide opportunities for increased sustainability and reduction of environmental impacts. While cities are expected to be responsible for 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions they are also places where proactive and innovative environmental management and urban planning can yield substantial benefits. Higher density living allows for more coordination of waste management, innovative energy management, reduced reliance on cars for transport and efficient distribution of food and other resources. Public transit and sustainable transport options are a particular area of opportunity in terms of acting on the opportunities offered by increased urbanization.
Politically, urbanization can increase the power of local governments, leading to more localized decision-making and, perhaps, more empowerment of citizens. Cities have been described as ‘virtual islands’; places where resource allocation and generation/distribution of power can be managed within a relatively closed system to the benefit of all. The Inter-American Dialogue suggests we can look forward to a positive future in cities: Successful urban areas will be the ones that improve services, enhance national and international connectivity (the Internet), ensure water and electricity supplies, raise levels of education and healthcare, anticipate adaptation to climate change plans and measures, consider greening cities, provide talent pools of technical specialists and other experts, secure efficient and reliable financial systems, cultivate cultural activity, and provide citizens with two important benefits: an improved quality of life and increased productivity.
Internationally, people are on the move. Reduced costs of transportation, climate change and economic opportunities are all expected to drive increasing international migration in the coming decades.[1,10,11,12]
While opportunistic migration has been common for some time, the effects of climate change are expected to prompt significant numbers of people to migrate internationally in the coming decades. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has noted that “the greatest single impact of climate change could be on human migration”. The number of people displaced by conflict and political instability is also expected to increase. More refugees moving along new and existing migration routes will have implications for public policy and international governance.
Economic development in the global south may also contribute to higher levels of international migration. While many assume that economic development will reduce the number of people emigrating in search of economic opportunities, in fact it is observed that economic growth leads to an initial increase in emigration, presumably as citizens are better educated and have more access to connectivity, transport and international job opportunities. Emigration tends to reduce when a country is sufficiently developed that there are good opportunities for workers ‘at home’.
For developed markets receiving migrants, this means access to an increased working age population to support ageing societies. In many developed countries, migrants also help to slow the decline in population growth associated with lower fertility rates.
Companies can expect to have an increasingly mobile and diverse workforce available to them, while countries hosting migrants can enjoy the cultural benefits of diversity along with the economic benefits of an enlarged workforce.
- Future outlook. 100 Global trends for 2050 (UAE Ministry of Cabinet Affairs and the Future, 2017)
- Foresight Africa. Top priorities for the continent 2020-2030 (Brookings Institute, 2020)
- Global connectivity outlook to 2030 (World Bank, 2019)
- Beyond the noise. The megatrends of tomorrow's world (Deloitte, 2017)
- African futures. Key trends to 2035 (Institute for Security Studies, 2017)
- Global trends to 2030. Challenges and choices for Europe (European Strategy and Policy Analysis System, 2019)
- Global trends. Paradox of progress (US National Intelligence Council, 2017)
- Global strategic trends. The future starts today (UK Ministry of Defense, 2018)
- Future possibilities report 2020 (UAE Government, 2020)
- Global Trends and the future of Latin America. Why and how Latin America should think about the future (Inter-American Dialogue, 2016)
- Asia pacific megatrends 2040 (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, 2019)
- Global trends 2020. Understanding complexity (Ipsos, 2020)
- Global risks 2035 update. Decline or new renaissance? (Atlantic Council, 2019)