The solution is compact cities

The problem is prosperity.

The world’s population is expanding rapidly.  Whilst we in Europe have been trapped by the economic crisis, the likes of Brazil, India and China have found room to manoeuvre, adapting and continuing to grow at phenomenal rates. 

By 2050 there will be 9.3bn people living, breathing and consuming our planet’s resources, with 75 per cent of these living in cities.  To accommodate this we would need to build the equivalent of more than one new Birmingham every single week for the next 40 years.

The successful cities of the future will be more compact and efficient.  But to realise this future, we need to overcome the paradoxes created by prosperity and connectivity.

The stark fact is that unless we make our cities more efficient and sustainable, the quality of life of most people everywhere in the world will suffer.   Rapidly urbanising populations are a feature of emerging economies, but the new middle classes in the likes of the BRICS also expect their quality of life to keep growing. 

City development has relied on continuing low energy costs.  But population growth, consumer demand and supply reaching nature’s limits are putting pressures also on rising energy costs, and together these present a massive threat to people’s quality of life. This is the Prosperity Paradox.

If we don’t find solutions to this paradox, the world could face a major crisis. 

So we need to encourage and plan for more compact cities.  These will see people living closer to their place of work and commuting less, travelling more on public transport and less in cars.  Urbanisation has seen fragmentation of communities, but in the compact city your neighbours and friends will be nearer to you, and where you shop, work and play will be closer to where you sleep. That will save energy, reducing per capita spend and therefore keeping disposable incomes up. 

Politicians alone can’t deliver the compact cities we need.  In an interconnected world, we need governments incentivising smart growth; communities moderating their short-term demands for goods for the benefit of their friends and neighbours in the long-term; business offering smarter, more integrated solutions that work in the long-term rather than just responding to the short-term demands of their shareholders. 

Overcoming this Connectivity Paradox requires good story-telling.  Politicians need to be more honest with voters about the short and long-term trade-offs of decisions; communities need to discuss and plan for their own future needs; businesses need to articulate a vision to shareholders that realises long-term value as well as short-term gain.

The responsibility doesn’t just fall on our politicians, our community or our business leaders.  It falls to each and every one of us, individually and collectively.

Jeremy Bentham is Head of Scenarios at Shell.

Photograph: Getty Images

Shell Head of Scenarios

Getty Images.
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Martin Sorrell: I support a second EU referendum

If the economy is not in great shape after two years, public opinion on Brexit could yet shift, says the WPP head.

On Labour’s weakness, if you take the market economy analogy, if you don’t have vigorous competitors you have a monopoly. That’s not good for prices and certainly not for competition. It breeds inefficiency, apathy, complacency, even arrogance. That applies to politics too.

A new party? Maybe, but Tom Friedman has a view that parties have outlived their purpose and with the changes that have taken place through globalisation, and will do through automation, what’s necessary is for parties not to realign but for new organisations and new structures to be developed.

Britain leaving the EU with no deal is a strong possibility. A lot of observers believe that will be the case, that it’s too complex a thing to work out within two years. To extend it beyond two years you need 27 states to approve.

The other thing one has to bear in mind is what’s going to happen to the EU over the next two years. There’s the French event to come, the German event and the possibility of an Italian event: an election or a referendum. If Le Pen was to win or if Merkel couldn’t form a government or if the Renzi and Berlusconi coalition lost out to Cinque Stelle, it might be a very different story. I think the EU could absorb a Portuguese exit or a Greek exit, or maybe even both of them exiting, I don’t think either the euro or the EU could withstand an Italian exit, which if Cinque Stelle was in control you might well see.

Whatever you think the long-term result would be, and I think the UK would grow faster inside than outside, even if Britain were to be faster outside, to get to that point is going to take a long time. The odds are there will be a period of disruption over the next two years and beyond. If we have a hard exit, which I think is the most likely outcome, it could be quite unpleasant in the short to medium term.

Personally, I do support a second referendum. Richard Branson says so, Tony Blair says so. I think the odds are diminishing all the time and with the triggering of Article 50 it will take another lurch down. But if things don’t get well over the two years, if the economy is not in great shape, maybe there will be a Brexit check at the end.

Martin Sorrell is the chairman and chief executive of WPP.

As told to George Eaton.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition