Bigger, faster, better? How Asian megacities can power human development

Throughout history, cities have been the engines of socio-economic growth. They are the main centres of learning, culture, art, medical progress and innovation. It is not surprising that most of the world's richest countries are also the most urban and have the highest Human Development Index scores.

The ongoing urbanisation across Asia-Pacific provides a unique opportunity for the region's economies to better capture the demographic dividends of the population and boost socio-economic growth. Cities are home to a greater share of youth and adult working-age people than rural areas, making them pivotal places to capture demographic dividends. They can be especially attractive to women, who might have more limited opportunities in rural areas.

However, for the region to be able to fully capitalise on the opportunity, policymakers will have to address a few key issues.


Asia-Pacific has seen a surge in urban migration over the past two decades. In China, 56 per cent of the population were living in urban centres last year, up from just 31 per cent in 1995. During the same period, the share of urban population rose to 54 per cent from 36 per cent in Indonesia; to 75 per cent from 56 per cent in Malaysia; and to 50 per cent from 30 per cent in Thailand.

These numbers are going to increase exponentially in the coming years. By the year 2050, 75 per cent of the global population will be living in cities. In order to accommodate this rapid expansion in urban dwelling, experts estimate that US$57 trillion (S$81 trillion) in global infrastructure investment is required till 2030 alone.

For countries to be able to manage this, they need proactive planning and sound management. National and local governments need to become more strategic in responding to the full range of challenges and opportunities posed by rapid urbanisation. This can be done by formulating a national urbanisation strategy as the first step. It could help to identify urban development priorities, shape national and regional spatial plans, and better coordinate actions by national and local actors, including the private sector.

There is, however, no one-size-fits-all urban strategy for Asia-Pacific. Each country needs to study its urbanisation trends and take action accordingly. Urban policy priorities and choices depend on a variety of factors - including the scale and speed of urbanisation, the source of rapid urbanisation, the size of cities and the stage of urban development.

Essential components of a successful strategy include well-defined property rights, a good investment climate, an attractive incentive framework for businesses, functioning land and labour markets, high investment in education and training, reliable electricity and power grids, good transportation systems, interconnectedness between cities and outstanding telecommunication networks.

Intergovernmental relationships are also key to successful urbanisation. National, regional and city governments need to have clearly defined roles grounded in existing capacities, but also connected to a vision of developing future capacities. Local governments will need requisite technical and managerial skills, the ability to engage with the public and strong capacities to design, implement, monitor and evaluate local public policies and services.


As an even larger share of the population moves to cities, governments will need to expand capacities and resources to cater to rapidly growing demands for public services and infrastructure, extend protection measures for the urban poor and marginalised, and guide the building of cities that are resilient and sustainable.

This is especially because the benefits of urbanisation, so far, have not been equally shared. One of the key challenges for Asia-Pacific today involves urban poverty and inequality. Slums are still prevalent even in prosperous cities. Measures of urban inequality tend to be higher than national averages across the region. Future human development prospects largely hinge on how well these are managed. Efforts should be made to integrate all marginalised people such as rural-urban migrants and slum dwellers.

Most of the cities in Asia-Pacific are also suffering from high air pollution. Of the worst 100 polluted cities in the world, nearly 70 are from the region. This has a huge impact on the quality of life. Most Asia-Pacific cities are also located in coastal areas or on river banks, making them vulnerable to natural disasters such as storms, cyclones and floods. In this context, Asia-Pacific cities should not only foster green growth strategies, but also improve their resilience to natural disasters.

Finally, many cities in Asia-Pacific lack competitiveness due to infrastructure gaps. Poor urban infrastructure - such as unreliable power systems, poor-quality roads, inefficient ports and inadequate schools - reduces cities' competitiveness and economic prospects. Investing in essential infrastructure propels growth and human development. There has been some progress in narrowing the infrastructure deficit in recent decades, but much more needs to be done.

The good part is that the region doesn't need to look far for inspiration.

Singapore is a great example of how this can happen. Ranked today as Asia's greenest city, having the best business environment and being the best place to live, Singapore was once a city with polluted rivers and massive infrastructure and housing shortages. With careful planning and coordinated development, guided by well-equipped institutions and regulations that have evolved as needed over time, and rooted in the principle of being responsive to people's needs, Singapore has managed to become one of the most inclusive, sustainable and competitive cities in the world.

The world needs inclusive and sustainable urbanisation as a milestone in the path towards socio-economic development. Singapore's success on this front, which attracted new industries, investments and skilled workers to spur dynamic economic growth, is a testament to the fact that this can be achieved.

What is increasingly necessary for this to take effect for any large city, is a holistic definition of resilience to identify cross-functional solutions for achieving the world's first city-focused Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) - Goal #11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. For the first time, the United Nations will have a business conversation, including governments, on addressing the SDGs at the Responsible Business Forum on Sustainable Development from Nov 22 to 24 in Singapore, where we will, together, build a tangible business case for the SDGs.

• The writer is senior strategic adviser and chief economist for Asia and the Pacific at the United Nations Development Programme, New York.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2016, with the headline 'Bigger, faster, better? How Asian megacities can power human development'. Subscribe