What makes “megacities” distinctive?
April 16, 2018
In Asia, cities on a scale not seen before are emerging. The challenges they pose for civic governments, and the opportunities they offer for individuals are equally enormous.
We’ll look at two of these urban centers. One an established megacity – the other still developing – and examine how lifestyles are diverging from Western cities.
Greater Tokyo is the world’s largest megacity, with a population of nearly 40,000,000 people.
Tokyo serves as an example of efficient megacity management; and an illustration of how different living in a city of this size can be. People relocating from comparatively smaller cities like New York or London can often be in for significant culture-shock.
Tokyo doesn’t have what other cities would consider a single central business or “entertainment” district. Instead it has several, geographically different districts spread throughout its 23 wards. These include districts like Shinjuku, Roppongi and Shibuya.
Despite these differences, Tokyo differs to other megacities – primarily on the Chinese mainland – in that it is a product of the 20th century (the height of its urban growth was in 1970s and 1980s). It represents a mature megacity, rather than an emerging one. This has its advantages, such as cleaner air and generally better quality of living. However, it also means emerging technologies aren’t being adopted as quickly as in China.
Megacities: Pearl River Delta
Since the early 1990s, The Pearl River Delta (PRD) has been growing faster than any other zone on the planet. Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou – along with six other major cities – have grown by several orders of magnitude since 1992. Some 120 million people now live within the most urbanized zone on the planet.
Unsurprisingly all this growth means these nine cities are increasingly moving towards becoming a single urban zone. While this is some way off, urban planners are already keeping this in mind when developing new infrastructure.
Their plan is to turn the entire delta into a “one-hour living zone.” Thousands of miles of highway, rail and inter-connected subways offer a resident of any of the nine cities the ability to move to any other, in under an hour.
It’s an ambitious plan. But it is perhaps this region above all others that offers the potential to realize futuristic ideas of megacities that have been a staple of science-fiction for decades.
Innovation: Big data solutions
Megacities face predictably huge problems when it comes to issues like traffic management. Data-driven solutions are commonly being adopted to help address some of these. This includes using AI to direct traffic-signals to improve traffic flow and safety, among other initiatives.
China’s high-tech surveillance systems are also helping to enforce law and order. “Smart” surveillance cameras in Shenzhen also employing AI. This allows the city’s network of cameras to work collectively to identify a suspect of a crime within seconds. Major cities in the West – by contrast – are still using basic CCTV cameras. This is unsurprising, as surveillance systems are less controversial among the public in China.
Chinese cities are leading the world in the adoption of cashless technology. Applications are reshaping not only banking, but how customers conduct transactions in ordinary brick and mortar retail environments.
Physical cash spend has declined by 10% in China over the past two years. Most of this slack is being taken up by smartphone-based payment systems. Mobile payment systems are changing how residents pay for everything, from taxi fares to doctors’ fees. Shenzhen is leading this charge; for example, the ever-expanding network of toll-highways that criss-crosses the PRD’s major cities recently adopted mobile payment technology.
China is well ahead of the curve here, and there is no sign of this trend diminishing. Some retailers in Shenzhen now only accept mobile payments. If you’re looking at moving to one of China’s emerging megacities in the next few years then having a mobile payment app on your phone is a necessity. AliPay and WeChat Pay are by far the market leaders in this space.
Similar innovations have helped to make China the center of the world for cutting-edge delivery services. More and more Chinese e-commerce firms are offering same-day delivery as standard throughout the PRD. Western countries are playing catch-up to offer such services with no surcharge in their major cities.
Looking to the future
What places like the PRD will look like decades from now isn’t set in stone. What is clear is that the size, scale and technological impulses that are shaping its growth are leading to something that was previously the realm of fiction. Potentially, the differences between regions like the PRD and older cities like London or Paris could grow wider.
One thing is for certain: the scale of opportunity mirrors the scale of these megacities themselves.
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