Video: The Rise of Megacities and the Era of “Connectography”

Humanity’s rapid and unprecedented rate of urbanization and connectivity is leading to the emergence of a truly globalized society. Goods and services, social relations, cultural products, ideas and values, and people themselves are transcending political and geographic boundaries like never before.

Needless to say, this trend is impacting every facet of human life, portending a future in which existing national borders — the kind we’re accustomed to seeing in every map of the world — fail to capture a new pan-human community. Indeed, the nation-state as we take for granted today may not exist at all.

Granted, such claims come with plenty of caveats. The world still far from abandoning the forces of nationalism, religious extremism, ethnic chauvinism, and basic parochialism, to say nothing of the technical challenges that remains; arguably, such sentiments have only grown stronger in some parts of the world in recent years.

In any case, there is no denying that whatever challenges or reversals lie ahead, the world is not what it once was, and today’s concept of a nation-state dominated international order is longer adequate for capturing the reality of our global society. Parag Khanna brings this to light with an interesting new TED Talk that explores the emergence of megacities and the subsequent erosion of geographic and political barriers — a dramatic shift he refers to as “connectography”. Check out the twenty minute video below, or read the transcript here.

The main crux of the video is that geography no longer matters as much as it used to in shaping the destiny of civilizations. 

There’s a saying with which all students of history are familiar: “Geography is destiny.” Sounds so grave, doesn’t it? It’s such a fatalistic adage. It tells us that landlocked countries are condemned to be poor, that small countries cannot escape their larger neighbors, that vast distances are insurmountable. But every journey I take around the world, I see an even greater force sweeping the planet: connectivity.

The global connectivity revolution, in all of its forms — transportation, energy and communications — has enabled such a quantum leap in the mobility of people, of goods, of resources, of knowledge, such that we can no longer even think of geography as distinct from it. In fact, I view the two forces as fusing together into what I call “connectography”.

Connectography represents a quantum leap in the mobility of people, resources and ideas, but it is an evolution, an evolution of the world from political geography, which is how we legally divide the world, to functional geography, which is how we actually use the world, from nations and borders, to infrastructure and supply chains.

Our global system is evolving from the vertically integrated empires of the 19th century, through the horizontally interdependent nations of the 20th century, into a global network civilization in the 21st century. Connectivity, not sovereignty, has become the organizing principle of the human species.

Khanna also highlights the incredible and often underappreciated extent to which the foundations of a global civilization are being laid. Global infrastructure spending will rise to nine trillion within the decade, more than eight times the total spent on military and defense worldwide. The world’s 500,000 kilometers of international borders pale in comparison to “64 million kilometers of roads, four million kilometers of railways, two million kilometers of pipelines and one million kilometers of Internet cables “, symbolizing the much greater extent to which people are connecting to one another and facilitating trade, travel, and communication between themselves — even among nationals whose governments are not in the best of terms. Such is the strength of this new globalizing norm. 

And while wealthy, industrialized countries have long enjoyed the fruits of urbanization and comprehensive infrastructure, it is in the fast-growing and economically dynamic developing world that some of  the most exciting connectivity initiatives are being spearheaded:

The real promise of connectivity is in the postcolonial world. All of those regions where borders have historically been the most arbitrary and where generations of leaders have had hostile relations with each other. But now a new group of leaders has come into power and is burying the hatchet.

Let’s take Southeast Asia, where high-speed rail networks are planned to connect Bangkok to Singapore and trade corridors from Vietnam to Myanmar. Now this region of 600 million people coordinates its agricultural resources and its industrial output. It is evolving into what I call a Pax Asiana, a peace among Southeast Asian nations.

A similar phenomenon is underway in East Africa, where a half dozen countries are investing in railways and multimodal corridors so that landlocked countries can get their goods to market. Now these countries coordinate their utilities and their investment policies. They, too, are evolving into a Pax Africana.

Khanna also points out the record trade and travel between old and even current rivals, such as China and Taiwan, India and Pakistan, and most recently Iran with the West.

If all this sounds a bit too optimistic, it is understandable: the world is far from unified, and clashes of culture and geopolitical interests remain intractable. The growth in populist nationalism, parochialism, and religious extremism in many parts of the world threaten to smother and nascent sense of a pan-human identity — and yet still, economic, migratory, and cultural integration continues, in fits and starts, and often in spite of these challenges.

As I am fond of pointing out, progress is rarely linear, and it is possible that despite the above mentioned reversals and challenges, the world will continue to march towards the next stage of social organization: from band to tribe to city to nation to possibly global civilization. It was not long ago in our brief span on Earth that the idea of any community outside one’s extended family was unheard of — and now here we are, building relationships and connections with societies halfway across the world. What is far fetched now may be a given just decades from now.

What are your thoughts?

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