July 18, 2012

The City as System

Over at Global Trends 2030 blog, David Kilcullen has a very fascinating entry on urbanization and conflict, a theme near and dear to my heart:

The city is a system which, in turn, nests within a larger national and
global system, with coastal cities functioning as an exchange mechanism
that connects rural hinterlands with urban populations, and with
international networks. In this model, the coastal city is the center of a larger system, with
rural factors in the city’s hinterland—including environmental
degradation, poor rural infrastructure, and rural conflict—prompting
rapid urbanization. This creates ad hoc peri-urban
settlements where slums and shantytowns displace land formerly used to
provide food and other services to the city, and cover the rainfall
catchment area for the city’s water supply. The city’s growth puts its
infrastructure under stress, so that both the old urban core and the new
peri-urban areas experience weak governance, crime, urban poverty,
unemployment and conflict. Shortages of food, fuel, electricity and
water exacerbate these problems. In turn, the city’s connectedness
allows its population to tap into licit and illicit activities offshore,
and to connect with global networks, including diaspora populations, an
interaction that affects both local and international conflict

Kilcullen is paraphrasing research on economic geography and urban networks, such as the idea of the "world city." Moreover, the metaphor of system was also originally coined by Jane Jacobs, who described the modern city as something akin to a complex adaptive system. Of course, if the city is tied into local-global networks it is also increasingly tied to cyberspace--and will be more so as ubiquitous computing becomes more and more a part of the urban landscape. Whether through devices, industrial control systems, media, or systems that network infrastructure and supply chains, cyberspace touches nearly aspect of urban life.

All of this has some dangerous implications for government control--much of which Kilcullen has sketched out. Large cities in the Middle East, Latin America, and Central Asia have already been sites for crime and warfare over the last twenty years. As I've noted in the past, force requirements for gaining control over megacitie do not square with emerging trends in Western defense and personnel cuts. Nor are platforms necessarily effective for gaining control. Certainly these cities have vulnerabilities, but their residents may have already inured themselves to supply chain disruptions and poor infrastructure. They have also, in many cases, created alternative supply chains and services.

The state does have some important advantages, however. After all, many cities have been developed precisely with internal warfare in mind. And some of the very same qualities that make states advantageous for insurgents also can help governments hold onto power. The uncertainty involved in the current operations in and around Damascus lies in whether or not the ability to execute high-profile attacks equates to a loss of government control. Moreover, emerging technologies will likely give states greater ability to surveil their internal adversaries at ever-more-intrusive levels and precisely target them. Either way, urbanization is something for students of war and strategy to carefully watch over the next few years.