Smart Mobility

“Diplomacity” and the role of cities in a globalized world

In order to gain his unique insight on the past, present and future of our cities and their role in world affairs, URBAN HUB spoke with renowned expert Dr. Parag Khanna. Khanna is a global strategist, best-selling author and sought-after expert on the topics of urbanization, globalization and international affairs. 

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Published on 30.04.2015

Cities make the world go round

At the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona on 19 November 2014, Parag Khanna gave a keynote speech on on “The Future of Globalization”. URBAN HUB sat down with him to talk about his presentation, but also to hear more of what he had to say about the future of cities and urbanization.

Khanna’s goal in his talk in Barcelona was to “put the evolution of cities into their historic context as the central anchors and diplomatic players of the world today.” He explained how, over the past 1,000 years, it was cities that remained the driving force of international trade over five major stages of globalization – from the trade routes of the Orient to today’s hyperconnected world.

The five stages of globalization from 1000 A.D. to today

So what is meant by “Total Globalization” in the timeline above? One has to look back to the 1980s and 1990s when the world was dominated by the USA, followed by other powers such as Europe, China, India and Japan – the markets that mattered.

Today, according to Khanna, we have such a strong global technology and communications network that “every market matters”.

From the unipolar 1990s to today’s geopolitical marketplace

Do closer links mean the end of wars?

Parag pointed out that, while governments do spend a lot on defense, they put much more money into improving our global infrastructure, which includes spending on telecommunications, transportation and international supply chains. This infrastructure represents a huge investment that nations will not want to jeopardize for something so trivial as war.

What governments will do, however, is to play a sort of “tug of war” for greater control over the supply chain. This may result in some aggressive maneuvering by politicians and businessmen, but that is certainly a favorable alternative to war.

“A city can be successful in a failed state, but there is no viable country without a viable city.”

Dr. Parag Khanna

Managing Partner, Hybrid Reality



Some highlights from Parag Khanna’s résumé:

  • Managing Partner of Hybrid Reality Pte Ltd
  • CEO of Factotum
  • Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation
  • Adjunct Professor in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore
  • Visiting Fellow at LSE IDEAS
  • Senior Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations
  • Senior Fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs
  • Co-author of Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization (2012)
  • Author of The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order (2008)
  • Author of How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance (2011)

Cities take the reins from the superpowers

With rising populations and incredible diversity, cities will become even greater driving forces of globalization and international city-to-city diplomacy or “diplomacity”, as Parag Khanna calls it.

In our increasingly urban world, Khanna stresses that countries need heads of state that know how to run cities – and the world already has ten national premiers who used to be mayors.

In many areas, cities have converged into “urban archipelagos”, and it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other begins. The economic weight of these megalopolises is massive – in fact, some are more internationally significant than many countries. China’s Pearl River Delta, as Khanna notes, would be a member of the G20 if it were an independent country.

China can be broken down into about 22 megacity clusters, each with its own characteristics and, often, unique legislation. Many cities around the world have their own so-called “special economic zones” with laws that differ, sometimes substantially, from national legislation – with a level of independence approaching that of a city-state.

New global power clusters: urban archipelagos

The smart city redefined

In order for these critically important cities to be sustainable, Khanna emphasizes they must be substantially populated (min. 1 million) and economically diversified. Detroit, for example, was too focused on manufacturing, and offshoring basically brought it to ruin. China’s Dongguan, on the other hand, had a large enough population and services sector, as well as government aid, which allowed it to quickly rebound from the recent financial crisis.

Khanna suggests that the definition of a smart city needs rethinking. He believes that smart cities should meet the criteria of a minimum population threshold and economic diversification. If smart cities don’t meet these requirements, they cannot achieve long-term sustainability. And that’s not smart.

Watch Khanna’s talk at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona on the past, present and future of globalization and learn how cities have always paved the way to a more connected world.

Keynote speech at the Smart City Expo World Congress 2014


Parag Khanna’s thoughts on urbanization and smart cities

With such an acclaimed expert on hand, it seemed the opportune moment to dive deeper into the topic of urbanization. Read some of the most inspiring excerpts from URBAN HUB’s interview with Parag Khanna:

  • URBAN HUB (UH): In terms of urban mobility, what do you expect to see in modern cities over the next 10 to 15 years?

    Parag Khanna (PK): “Mobility is crucial. The discourse surrounding mobility and smartness that began with things like bus rapid transit, ride sharing, congestion pricing, and so forth has evolved very quickly into driverless cars and other sorts of very high-tech, zero emissions electric car sharing schemes, as well as last-mile, multi-modal transportation systems.

    All of these are obviously very sophisticated, and cities such as Paris, Berlin, and other places – which are front and center in experimenting with some of these technologies – are obviously to be commended because such initiatives require very high up-front capital investments in order to develop the infrastructure for smart and efficient multi-modal transportation options.

    So in Helsinki, Finland, for example, young people are no longer buying cars because the public transportation is very good. In Singapore, they have decided to move forward with a Google driverless car test bed in one district. So there’s a lot of experimenting going on around the future of urban mobility that I think is very laudable, and so, 10 to 15 years from now, it could very well be that in some cities you’ll have a very highly advanced shared and driverless or piloted public transportation system.”

  • UH: What advice would you give to future urban planners, engineers and architects?

    PK: “One of the most important things they can do, really, is to focus on empowering individuals as much as possible. In some cities, I have observed far too little pedestrian accessibility to important public monuments, and sometimes it’s nearly impossible to cross major streets. Even cities that have been designed very recently were not necessarily designed with everyday people in mind.

    Having adequate amounts of public space is a very important thing to keep in mind. That public space, when you put cafés and free Wi-Fi and so forth, actually becomes a place that is not simply wasted space, quite the contrary, it becomes an entrepreneurial space. And we’ve started to see that happen in New York, Berlin and other places. So I think that allowing space for creativity generates its own rewards, and it’s very important to design cities with that in mind.”

  • UH: What do you expect for the future of our urban centers?

    PK: “Many people put forth futuristic visions of high-tech, perfectly efficient and beautiful urban areas, but we can only get there step by step. Even most high-tech, brand-new greenfield smart cities, like Songdo in South Korea, are not really futuristic, other than the fact that they’re new. New does not mean futuristic at all. There’s very little in Songo that’s truly futuristic. And that’s okay. I would not have that expectation of them. But I think that people create these fantasies, which are actually not really necessary. After all, to be functional is far more important than to be futuristic.

    My vision of a future city would be a place where you have resiliency, first and foremost against natural disasters, so that you ensure the preservation of individuals’ lives and the professional environment. It would be a place where people have very stable public utilities, whether it’s transportation, clean water and energy, and so forth. It would be a place with substantial public space available for everyone, and not overly gentrified and stratified. Economic diversity is also very important. These are the most important things about having a high-quality city life in the future.”

  • UH: How can cities attract and support skilled young people?

    PK: “A lot of the answer depends on the demographic structure. Some cities have introduced smaller and more affordable apartments in the downtown area for young and single college graduates, so they can live and work on their own, and become more engaged economically. And there is of course the post-financial crisis generation that has been largely unemployed and living with their parents. So some cities have rezoned the properties downtown so that young people can afford to be there.

    Now if you put young and single people in very small apartments they can afford, that means they will spend a lot more time outside. They’ll spend more time at work, congregating in public, and going out and eating, because their apartments are too small to do those things. And this is all very intentional.

    Such municipalities have changed their laws to reflect the current socio-economic and demographic realities. And it’s to the benefit of young, single people. They don’t want these people to be on the social and geographic margins forever. So you have to create the conditions for change. And that requires a rapid shifting of laws. I think there are examples of that in other places which are critical. You have to adapt to the times if you want to remain dynamic. And that’s going to depend on the foresight of policymakers.”

  • UH: What does globalization and “diplomacity” mean for our democratic processes?

    PK: “Specific to democracy, my personal view is that cities are, obviously, very high potential places for intense democratic activities. So, I think it’s a natural fit.

    The form of democracy created by the use of technologies becomes a kind of real-time digital consultation rather than an electoral type of democracy. Smart cities have sensors, surveys, the Internet of Things, and what we call a “heat map” of sentiments, as well as Twitter feeds, and so forth. It’s a place where you don’t have to wait for elections to know what people want.

    Theoretically, you could constantly be adapting to what people want, and I believe that is inherently democratic. To be a democracy is to reflect the will of the people; it’s not to wait every four years for people to indirectly vote for someone who claims to represent the will of the people. That’s not inherent in the classical definition of democracy. As far as I’m concerned, a democracy reflects the will of the people, and it does so as efficiently as possible. So I believe that cities are the type of place where that kind of democracy is plausible.”


Stage image no. 1  courtesy of Parag Khanna
Images no. 2-5: idea / content by Parag Khanna, design by URBAN HUB
Image no. 6 courtesy of Parag Khanna
Image no. 7:  idea / content by Parag Khanna, design by URBAN HUB