By Jonathan Woetzel

An urban world is a fundamentally different place with implications for governance, environment, and technology, not just demography. In some ways this will be a “back to the future” experience. Conurbations are the original unit of social organization dating from Gilgamesh and the warring states of China. Technology development, notably large-scale agricultural engineering, led to imperial bureaucracies and the amalgamation of these clusters into what became nation-states. However, cities have always been the centers of civilization. By 2050 the scale and density of these clusters relative to the whole of humanity will be unprecedented.

The implications go well beyond demographics. In an urban world there is no longer a rural reservoir. Impacts of social crises no longer roll slowly through the countryside, sometimes to peter out unnoticed by the rich and powerful. Rather events explode, demanding immediate responsive governance. Humanity’s most pressing security threats will be urban in nature with the advent of bioterror and pandemics. Environmental pressures will be immediate as urbanites struggle to adapt to a volatile context with rising weather uncertainties, extended global supply chains, and mounting waste and water challenges. On the positive side, innovation hubs will drive scientific development. The correlations between technical productivity and density are clear. Geoffrey West’s work notes that with urban scale we get 1.2 times everything – patents, economic growth, crime. The basis is network effects as in an urban context we get to share it all – the good, the bad and the ugly.

The winners will be those urban leaders who are most effective at building cohesive, integrated, sustainable clusters. National governments that stand in the way of these clusters will fall behind as the costs of their inefficient health plans and outdated military machines mount. Successful clusters will have the scale to fend for themselves politically, economically and environmentally in an atomized landscape. Accountability will be a first marker of their potential. Recognizing the complexity of federal, state and local interactions, cities that have gained an increased measure of local responsibilities for both income and expenditures will be more successful in making change happen. Effective local leaders can enable local clusters to form, incorporating externalities in a planned way, enfranchising minorities, and developing integrated city plans. Key tools include the use of big data, empowering city employees, and long-term professional financial management.

Successful cities are the future – there is no other model for human development. The urban world will be one in which we will be first and foremost, citizens of cities.

Jonathan Woetzel is a Director in McKinsey & Company’s Shanghai Office and Co-Chair of the Urban China Initiative (http://www.urbanchinainitiative.org). The views expressed herein represent his personal views and do not necessarily reflect the perspectives of any organization with which he is affiliated.