Rotating spotlights illuminate the heavy rain clouds above a former coal-fired power station in the heart of Istanbul. Inside, a DJ ups the pace of the music as new arrivals browse the finger buffet. Business cards are being swapped as a speaker calls for hush. A promotional video begins to play.
The Silahtarağa Power Station – now an energy museum on the campus at Istanbul Bilgi University – could be the venue for a product launch anywhere in the world. But the crowd of business leaders, media and government officials has gathered for the launch of a report called Future Agenda: The World in 2020. Commissioned by the telecommunications company Vodafone, Future Agenda claims to be the world’s largest "open foresight project": an exercise in future-gazing involving 2,000 global participants, including the British Council, Google, Shell, PepsiCo and academics, with the aim of "analysing the crucial themes of the next 10 years".
But, in contrast to the pessimism offered by scientists James Lovelock and Paul Ehrlich, there is a sense of pragmatism, even optimism, about both the opportunities and challenges a rising population will bring. And it’s no accident that Istanbul has been chosen as the launch city. As a “megacity” – a population greater than 10 million — Istanbul believes itself to be an international beacon of how a city can grow both successfully and rapidly.
The Economist has reported that Istanbul, with income growth of 5.5% and employment growth of 7.3% over the last year, is currently the world’s "best-performing" city (although credit rating agencies question its status as a borrower).
Dr Tim Jones, the British author of Future Agenda, believes that by 2050, 75% of us will be living in cities. "The major trend we need to grasp is rural-urban migration," he says. "To put it simply, people are largely in the wrong place at the moment. They want to move where they perceive there to be opportunities. This means large cities. Immigration is a difficult political subject at the moment all over the world, but I believe migration will ultimately come to be seen in a positive light as the realisation is finally made that immigrants are a necessity to maintain ageing populations."
Our greatest challenge, says Jones, is to build cities that address the realities of rapid growth: "Sprawl is already being rejected as a deeply inefficient model for growing cities. Hong Kong and Paris are good examples where densities are key to success. They are seen as successful cities. For example, just 5% of Hong Kong’s personal income is spent on transportation, whereas in Houston it is 20% because everyone drives such huge distances commuting.
“Paris, with its six- and seven-storey housing, open spaces and street-based cafe culture is a model to aspire to. The Japanese are also role models when it comes to living densities. We must aspire to be like them. For example, we can’t let China shoot past Japan and attempt to live like the Americans."
The gap between the world’s rich and poor will worsen, he says, but that doesn’t mean they will be forced apart geographically. "Residents within the world’s megacities are already realising that they are all interdependent. In Mumbai, the rich want the inner-city slums to remain because they want the cheap labour close by. Equally, when slum dwellers have been given land on the outskirts of the city to tempt them away from the inner-city slums, many people have sold the land and moved back to the slum areas because they are closer to the work."
When it comes to consumption levels, Jones says there are already clear innovations emerging that will help to ease this problem. "The need and desire to actually own something is likely to reduce with rental of goods becoming more and more popular. We’re already seeing this in cities with car [sharing] schemes such as Zipcar."
The rise of the city will also have a huge impact on geopolitics, predicts Jones, with some megacities wielding far more power than many nation-states. "Already we are seeing that the C40 [a group of large cities committed to tackling climate change] is having more impact than the G20. I see far more political action being enacted by city mayors in the future."
Çaglar Keyder, a professor of sociology at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, agrees that the citizens of Istanbul are very proud of their city’s rise, but growth has not come without some problems: "There has been rapid urban regeneration; knocking down shanties and putting people in high-rises. Retired, older people are moving further out and the young are moving in, but birth rates are falling. Traffic and environmental pollution is where the growth is most felt."
Carl Haub has been counting the world’s people for the last three decades. The Conrad Taeuber chair of population information at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington DC and author of the World Population Data Sheet, an internationally respected annual report that provides population, health and environmental indicators for more than 200 countries, he has near-total recall of the myriad figures that underpin 2011’s seven-billion landmark.
"In terms of future growth, everything depends on the birth rates in developing nations," he says. "There is a presumption that the global average will come down to less than two children per woman after 2050, but there are big question marks about this. For example, everyone is pessimistic about sub-Saharan Africa, where birth rates overall are not coming down at all. The political situation is key. Both Zimbabwe and Cote d’Ivoire were seen as bright spots by demographers, but now things are much bleaker. Sub-Saharan Africa will double in size by 2050. Nigeria is 158 million now, but will be 326 million by 2050 and will continue rising.
“Starvation is actually quite rare at the moment in sub-Saharan Africa, but standards of living will continue to fall. And without AIDS, there would be 200- to 300 million more people in Africa by 2050. Many people in the west just don’t understand what the standard of living is like in these countries. Some of the consequences are invisible to us in the west, but for how long?"
Migration and ageing are two key, interconnected issues, argues Haub. "China has now got a serious problem with ageing," he says. "I predict they will relax their one-child policy within five years. In Japan, where ageing is a huge problem, they are now having a major nursing crisis with very few young women wanting to be nurses. They’re having to import them from Vietnam and the Philippines."
City living does help to suppress birth rates, says Haub. This can clearly be seen in Bangladesh, he says, where rural-to-city migration is driven by desperation. Once in the city, the need to have lots of children to work the land disappears, they become expensive to support and access to family planning is readily available.
But migration inevitably brings with it political tensions. "Terrorism is the curve ball in the immigration debate. Turks and Slavs were tolerated in Germany for a long period, but not now. The chancellor Angela Merkel recently said that assimilation is not working. The birth rate in Germany is very low – about 1.4 children per woman, which is close to demographic suicide – and immigration has maintained the population. In cities such as Frankfurt, where there is a very sizeable Turkish population, there is now a fear of radicalism amid isolated communities.
“And then there is religion, of course. But, in general, I see this as a decreasing influence when it comes to family planning. In Africa, for example, cultural norms have a much greater impact. Here we see issues such as polygamy and men boasting about how many children they have."
So are there any signs of optimism?
"We have to be realistic," he says. "We are just not going to see fewer people on the planet in the near future. But there are some developing countries where the birth rate is under control. Thailand is seen as the No 1 developing country when it comes to family planning. The birth rate there is 1.8. Indonesia also has a very efficient family-planning system.
"But how far do you go? South Korea has a birth rate of 1.2 and in Taiwan it is 1.0. It is the lowest in the world and means the country is literally dying. If you do want a reduced birth rate, then well-organised family planning campaigns are much more important than economic growth. It might be unfashionable to say so, but international aid acts as a catalyst for this. Monetary assistance is key at the beginning to get these campaigns going."
Haub is already thinking ahead to the eight billionth person being born sometime around 2025. "The 20th century saw many things happen that greatly helped to reduce the death rate, such as public-health campaigns, immunisation and provision of clean water. The challenge for the 21st century is different: it’s all about managing birth rates."
(Future Agenda paid Leo Hickman’s travel expenses to attend its event in Istanbul.)
Part one: Coping with the numbers
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