Parag Khanna [ TED Vancouver ] I want you to reimagine how life is organized on earth. Think of the planet like a human body that we inhabit. The skeleton is the transportation system of roads and railways, bridges and tunnels, air and seaports that enable our mobility across the continents. The vascular system that powers the body are the oil and gas pipelines and electricity grids. that distribute energy. And the nervous system of communications is the Internet cables, satellites, cellular networks and data centers that allow us to share information.
This ever-expanding infrastructural matrix already consists of 64 million kilometers of roads, four million kilometers of railways, two million kilometers of pipelines and one million kilometers of Internet cables. What about international borders? We have less than 500,000 kilometers of borders.
Let’s build a better map of the world. And we can start by overcoming some ancient mythology. 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.
We are becoming this global network civilization because we are literally building it. All of the world’s defense budgets and military spending taken together total just under two trillion dollars per year. Meanwhile, our global infrastructure spending is projected to rise to nine trillion dollars per year within the coming decade. And, well, it should. We have been living off an infrastructure stock meant for a world population of three billion, as our population has crossed seven billion to eight billion and eventually nine billion and more. As a rule of thumb, we should spend about one trillion dollars on the basic infrastructure needs of every billion people in the world.
Not surprisingly, Asia is in the lead. In 2015, China announced the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which together with a network of other organizations aims to construct a network of iron and silk roads, stretching from Shanghai to Lisbon.
And as all of this topographical engineering unfolds, we will likely spend more on infrastructure in the next 40 years, we will build more infrastructure in the next 40 years, than we have in the past 4,000 years.
Now let’s stop and think about it for a minute. Spending so much more on building the foundations of global society rather than on the tools to destroy it can have profound consequences. Connectivity is how we optimize the distribution of people and resources around the world. It is how mankind comes to be more than just the sum of its parts. I believe that is what is happening.
Connectivity has a twin megatrend in the 21st century: planetary urbanization. Cities are the infrastructures that most define us. By 2030, more than two thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. And these are not mere little dots on the map, but they are vast archipelagos stretching hundreds of kilometers.
Here we are in Vancouver, at the head of the Cascadia Corridor that stretches south across the US border to Seattle. The technology powerhouse of Silicon Valley begins north of San Francisco down to San Jose and across the bay to Oakland. The sprawl of Los Angeles now passes San Diego across the Mexican border to Tijuana. San Diego and Tijuana now share an airport terminal where you can exit into either country. Eventually, a high-speed rail network may connect the entire Pacific spine. America‘s northeastern megalopolis begins in Boston through New York and Philadelphia to Washington. It contains more than 50 million people and also has plans for a high-speed rail network.
But Asia is where we really see the megacities coming together. This continuous strip of light from Tokyo through Nagoya to Osaka contains more than 80 million people and most of Japan’s economy. It is the world’s largest megacity. For now.
But in China, megacity clusters are coming together with populations reaching 100 million people. The Bohai Rim around Beijing, The Yangtze River Delta around Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta, stretching from Hong Kong north to Guangzhou. And in the middle, the Chongqing-Chengdu megacity cluster, whose geographic footprint is almost the same size as the country of Austria.
And any number of these megacity clusters has a GDP approaching two trillion dollars — that’s almost the same as all of India today. So imagine if our global diplomatic institutions, such as the G20, were to base their membership on economic size rather than national representation. Some Chinese megacities may be in and have a seat at the table, while entire countries, like Argentina or Indonesia would be out.
Moving to India, whose population will soon exceed that of China, it too has a number of megacity clusters, such as the Delhi Capital Region and Mumbai. In the Middle East, Greater Tehran is absorbing one third of Iran’s population. Most of Egypt’s 80 million people live in the corridor between Cairo and Alexandria. And in the gulf, a necklace of city-states is forming, from Bahrain and Qatar, through the United Arab Emirates to Muscat in Oman.
And then there’s Lagos, Africa’s largest city and Nigeria’s commercial hub. It has plans for a rail network that will make it the anchor of a vast Atlantic coastal corridor, stretching across Benin, Togo and Ghana, to Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast.
But these countries are suburbs of Lagos. In a megacity world, countries can be suburbs of cities. By 2030, we will have as many as 50 such megacity clusters in the world. So which map tells you more? Our traditional map of 200 discrete nations that hang on most of our walls, or this map of the 50 megacity clusters?
And yet, even this is incomplete because you cannot understand any individual megacity without understanding its connections to the others. People move to cities to be connected, and connectivity is why these cities thrive. Any number of them, such as Sao Paulo or Istanbul or Moscow, has a GDP approaching or exceeding one third of one half of their entire national GDP.
But equally importantly, you cannot calculate any of their individual value without understanding the role of the flows of people, of finance, of technology that enable them to thrive. Take the Gauteng province of South Africa, which contains Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria. It too represents just over a third of South Africa’s GDP. But equally importantly, it is home to the offices of almost every single multinational corporation that invests directly into South Africa and indeed, into the entire African continent.
Cities want to be part of global value chains. They want to be part of this global division of labor. That is how cities think. I’ve never met a mayor who said to me, “I want my city to be cut off.” They know that their cities belong as much to the global network civilization as to their home countries.
Now, for many people, urbanization causes great dismay. They think cities are wrecking the planet. But right now, there are more than 200 intercity learning networks thriving. That is as many as the number of intergovernmental organizations that we have. And all of these intercity networks are devoted to one purpose, mankind’s number one priority in the 21st century: sustainable urbanization.
Is it working? Let’s take climate change. We know that summit after summit in New York and Paris is not going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But what we can see is that transferring technology and knowledge and policies between cities is how we’ve actually begun to reduce the carbon intensity of our economies.
Cities are learning from each other. How to install zero-emissions buildings, how to deploy electric car-sharing systems. In major Chinese cities, they’re imposing quotas on the number of cars on the streets. In many Western cities, young people don’t even want to drive anymore. Cities have been part of the problem, now they are part of the solution.
Inequality is the other great challenge to achieving sustainable urbanization. When I travel through megacities from end to end — it takes hours and days — I experience the tragedy of extreme disparity within the same geography. And yet, our global stock of financial assets has never been larger, approaching 300 trillion dollars. That’s almost four times the actual GDP of the world.
We have taken on such enormous debts since the financial crisis, but have we invested them in inclusive growth? No, not yet. Only when we build sufficient, affordable public housing, when we invest in robust transportation networks to allow people to connect to each other both physically and digitally, that’s when our divided cities and societies will come to feel whole again.
And that is why infrastructure has just been included in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, because it enables all the others. Our political and economic leaders are learning that connectivity is not charity, it’s opportunity. And that’s why our financial community needs to understand that connectivity is the most important asset class of the 21st century.
Now, cities can make the world more sustainable, they can make the world more equitable, I also believe that connectivity between cities can make the world more peaceful. If we look at regions of the world with dense relations across borders, we see more trade, more investment and more stability. We all know the story of Europe after World War II, where industrial integration kicked off a process that gave rise to today’s peaceful European Union. And you can see that Russia, by the way, is the least connected of major powers in the international system. And that goes a long way towards explaining the tensions today. Countries that have less stake in the system also have less to lose in disturbing it. In North America, the lines that matter most on the map are not the US-Canada border or the US-Mexico border, but the dense network of roads and railways and pipelines and electricity grids and even water canals that are forming an integrated North American union. North America does not need more walls, it needs more connections.
But 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.
One region we know could especially use this kind of thinking is the Middle East. As Arab states tragically collapse, what is left behind but the ancient cities, such as Cairo, Beirut and Baghdad? In fact, the nearly 400 million people of the Arab world are almost entirely urbanized. As societies, as cities, they are either water rich or water poor, energy rich or energy poor. And the only way to correct these mismatches is not through more wars and more borders, but through more connectivity of pipelines and water canals. Sadly, this is not yet the map of the Middle East. But it should be, a connected Pax Arabia, internally integrated and productively connected to its neighbors: Europe, Asia and Africa.
Now, it may not seem like connectivity is what we want right now towards the world’s most turbulent region. But we know from history that more connectivity is the only way to bring about stability in the long run. Because we know that in region after region, connectivity is the new reality. Cities and countries are learning to aggregate into more peaceful and prosperous wholes.
But the real test is going to be Asia. Can connectivity overcome the patterns of rivalry among the great powers of the Far East? After all, this is where World War III is supposed to break out. Since the end of the Cold War, a quarter century ago, at least six major wars have been predicted for this region. But none have broken out.
Take China and Taiwan. In the 1990s, this was everyone’s leading World War III scenario. But since that time, the trade and investment volumes across the straits have become so intense that last November, leaders from both sides held a historic summit to discuss eventual peaceful reunification. And even the election of a nationalist party in Taiwan that’s pro-independence earlier this year does not undermine this fundamental dynamic.
China and Japan have an even longer history of rivalry and have been deploying their air forces and navies to show their strength in island disputes. But in recent years, Japan has been making its largest foreign investments in China. Japanese cars are selling in record numbers there. And guess where the largest number of foreigners residing in Japan today comes from? You guessed it: China.
China and India have fought a major war and have three outstanding border disputes, but today India is the second largest shareholder in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. They’re building a trade corridor stretching from Northeast India through Myanmar and Bangladesh to Southern China. Their trade volume has grown from 20 billion dollars a decade ago to 80 billion dollars today.
Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan have fought three wars and continue to dispute Kashmir, but they’re also negotiating a most-favored-nation trade agreement and want to complete a pipeline stretching from Iran through Pakistan to India.
And let’s talk about Iran. Wasn’t it just two years ago that war with Iran seemed inevitable? Then why is every single major power rushing to do business there today?
Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot guarantee that World War III will not break out. But we can definitely see why it hasn’t happened yet. Even though Asia is home to the world’s fastest growing militaries, these same countries are also investing billions of dollars in each other’s infrastructure and supply chains. They are more interested in each other’s functional geography than in their political geography. And that is why their leaders think twice, step back from the brink, and decide to focus on economic ties over territorial tensions.
So often it seems like the world is falling apart, but building more connectivity is how we put Humpty Dumpty back together again, much better than before. And by wrapping the world in such seamless physical and digital connectivity, we evolve towards a world in which people can rise above their geographic constraints. We are the cells and vessels pulsing through these global connectivity networks.
Everyday, hundreds of millions of people go online and work with people they’ve never met. More than one billion people cross borders every year, and that’s expected to rise to three billion in the coming decade.
We don’t just build connectivity, we embody it. We are the global network civilization, and this is our map. A map of the world in which geography is no longer destiny. Instead, the future has a new and more hopeful motto: connectivity is destiny.