Power Politics: Cities at the Centre of Geostrategic Competition

Words by Tom Cargill

illustration of tom cargill

Cities are the new battleground of the global economy — and infrastructure will be their secret weapon. We all need to understand this fundamental shift in foreign affairs, writes Tom Cargill

Smart cities is a concept that is much in vogue, though it can be hard to tie down to specific products and services. The key is to understand the politics, not just the technology, driving urban development and the changing role of cities in the international system. One way is not to try and envisage how the world might have changed in five, ten or 15 years’ time, but to look to the forces that are already at work and which are likely to drive that change.

At the macro level, we could look at the world’s economic centre of gravity — the point of balance around which economic activity is distributed. No surprise that for much of the 20th century this was somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. And no surprise that in recent decades it has begun to move east and now rests somewhere under central Asia or the Middle East, depending on your criteria. But it would be easy to misread this as the rise of the “Asian century”. What it actually implies is a de-concentration and dispersal of economic activity around the world — yes, with China and perhaps India making up significant ground, but in reality, creating more of a balance to the global economic weight of Europe and the US. This could lead to hot conflict, but will more likely just create renewed competition for influence and access.

This takes us back to cities. Barring some cataclysmic public health or other event, urbanization is set to continue. With the global population expected to reach 11.2 billion by the end of the century, cities will continue to grow in population, complexity and resource appetite.

“Cities will be arenas for competing lifestyles, values, cultures and economies … Over coming decades, that may require us to rethink our approach to delivering large-scale infrastructure”

The needs of Lagos, São Paulo or Jakarta are likely to be as different to each other as they are to those of London or Dallas. But one thing will unite them: they will all be centres of geostrategic competition and, more fundamentally, arenas for competing lifestyles, values, cultures and economies. Infrastructure, which enables, defines and records so much of this, will become a central weapon. Over coming decades, that may require us to rethink our whole approach to delivering large-scale projects.

In countries such as China, large-scale infrastructure companies clearly already understand the political as well as economic purpose they serve. It will become ever harder for their western counterparts, as well as national, regional and local governments, to ignore this. The most significant decision for local and national governments is between a state-centric or non-state-centric approach. This will increasingly define and display their wider strategic choices, whether it is in road systems, telecommunications or power, because the more state-integrated model offered by China (and some other countries) leads inevitably — if not at first consistently — to a distinct set of data, finance and operational choices that lock in future alignment. We are already seeing this in various stages in the Chinese government’s Belt & Road Initiative to link Eurasian countries. This is not to suggest that there will be some Manichean competition between blocs. Competition and cooperation between companies from different parts of the world will likely continue as immediate commercial interest dictates. But there will also be a larger competition to define or redefine the global rules for competition, influence and trade.

City leaders will face unprecedented pressures from increasingly demanding populations. Climate change, automation and AI may make employment and migration more central security concerns, and the resilience of infrastructure to criminal, state or accidental compromise will become critical as ever larger numbers depend on it. The ever-expanding data this infrastructure produces will become far more valuable in its own right — for good and ill.

To deliver in this complex environment, companies throughout the built environment supply chain will have to adapt. From business development right through to operations and maintenance and decommissioning, they need to become more politically and culturally sensitive — aware of the strategy that their public-sector clients are pursuing in the global competition between rising powers with their state-centric model and the more private-sector-orientated approach taken by most advanced economies and promoted by international financial institutions.

Most critically, however, governments in advanced economies need to better appreciate the role that infrastructure will play in the politics of the coming century. As the influence of cities grows, and economic, and cultural activity is ever more concentrated within them, there needs to be a more coherent strategy to ensure that they make the best long-term infrastructure decisions, not only in their own interests, but in global ones too.

Tom Cargill is executive director of the British Foreign Policy Group, a not-for-profit organisation that encourages national debate on foreign policy

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