The 21st century is turning out to be different in unanticipated ways. For example, living in one of the new densely populated cities of the planet may not be like waking up in a bigger version of a 20th century metropolis. John Spencer of the Modern War Institute hypothesized that the new megacities would have a quality all their own.
With his professional interest in military operations in mind and motivated by recent Amererican battle experience, Spencer conjectured that not only would time-distance relationships be warped by such urban densities but the very concentration of human complexity would generate a kind of collective intelligence that combat units would have to speak to. The military impact of these properties were described in his article ‘What an Army megacities unit would look like’.
The ability to maneuver forces is one of the biggest challenges of the dense urban environment. New combat vehicle platforms will be needed. The Abrams tank, Bradley, and Stryker range in width from eight to twelve feet. … Many of the developing cities of the world are built upon ancient infrastructure with narrow roads.
The ability to communicate with the population will also become a requirement. The tactical use of social media, internet, and co-opted local networks (like emergency alert systems) will be needed, but equally important will be the skills to develop the right message—language, culture, narrative. Military Information Support Operations units have historically not been a component of maneuver units but should be made organic, instead of a requested enabler.
Civilian agencies have also been trying to unpack the megacity mystery by their own method of study by committee. “Last week, the World Bank brought together urban planners and officials from 10 developing countries’ megacities – Buenos Aires, Cairo, Cape Town, Colombo, Dhaka, Ho Chi Minh City, Izmir, Jakarta, Karachi, and Kinshasa – for a “Technical Deep Dive” on Managing Urban Expansion in Mega Metropolitan Areas.” Their goal of course was to search for ways to bring these wildly growing human concentrations back under bureaucratic cultivation. They predictably concluded that “megacities face challenges of effectively coordinated planning, infrastructure development, and service delivery across multiple jurisdictions.”
Perhaps no one really understands urban density at this scale because nothing like it has ever existed before. In the face of the unprecedented history can only be a rough guide. In 1900 London was the largest city in the world with 5 million people. In 1950 New York topped the list with 10 million. In 2018 there were 15 cities of more than 20 million, nearly all of them in the Third World. Each level up represented a step into the unknown. In the famous phrase of the Wizard of Oz: we’re not in Kansas any more.