Between now and 2030, urban conglomerations will likely continue to be magnets for migration, including continued internal rural-to-urban migration in the developing world, urban-to-urban migration of poor people between neighboring countries, and migration of people to cities in Europe, and in strong emerging economies. Migration could easily add to the stresses on urban governance that already exist.  Mega-cities will cover hundreds of square miles, with increasing complex mixing of socio-economic classes in concentric circles from city nuclei to vast urban peripheries. A few key questions come to mind on the intersection of urban growth and politics, and all three involve migrants.

Is the supply of institutions and leaders for urban governance likely to meet the demand?  Demand for sound urban governance is likely to be intense.  There will be a premium on problem-solving for resource management, including food and water security, environmental standards, and working across seams in law enforcement because of their critical importance to the welfare of urban dwellers, including many migrants.

Under the right circumstances, people in mega-cities are likely to take the initiative to supply sound urban governance. Many examples already exist of grass-roots innovation and creativity; in fact, within the territories of almost-failed states, the city and local governance structures are often the best organized and most competent.

However, the ability of cities to take such initiatives will likely be dependent on how they are able to navigate public finance and their abilities to draw revenues from economic activities in cities and not losing those revenues to higher levels of government or to patronage.   Cities will seek effective workarounds to tap the revenues from large informal economies in cities, and using those revenues to improve services.  This is bound to involve accounting for and incorporating large numbers of internal or international migrants, without challenging their presence or residency.  Geo-demographic mapping—facilitated by ICT, could enable good characterizations of urban residents and neighborhoods.  Will city residents come to have a sense of agency that catalyzes problem-solving or will survival instincts dominate?

Are people likely to work across jurisdictions or borders to improve urban governance?  Policy coherence or coordination among cities within a country could give them leverage against central governments. In some cases, people from cities in adjoining countries could have more in common than with co-citizens from elsewhere in their respective countries, potentially mediated by migrants with ties to several countries. Moreover, shared interests between urban actors and international actors, such as NGOs, could empower urban areas and motivate actions to improve problem-solving in mega-cities. While sovereignty barriers between countries could prevent coordinated actions or cross-learning, barriers could be overcome by the public demand for problem-solving and the cross-nation affinities of many urban-dwellers.  Will workarounds prevail?

Will urban migrant concentrations act as incubators for political change or emergence of political entrepreneurs? Concentrations of migrants could catalyze social mobilization among urban residents, including creative ways to harness informal economies or foster political decentralization. Rural to urban migration also has played a role in revolutions in places as historically diverse as 1848 Europe, 1978/79 Iran, and the 2011 Arab Awakening.  People in urban areas and their vast urban peripheries could have more exposure to economic inequalities, more incentive to shake the system, and more access to new ideas than their co-citizens. The presence of large numbers of migrants could facilitate contagion of ideas across cities in unexpected ways, including ideas for improved governance.  Can social and political mobilization occur in ways that avoid blaming migrants?

Robert O. is one of the Research Directors in the National Intelligence Council’s Strategic Futures Group, with a portfolio covering governance, democratization, and migration.