Tag Archives: inequality

How stupid can ‘smart cities’ be ?

home for every new yorker
Demonstration for affordable housing – Photo: Getty Images

Smart cities intent deploying big data, information and communication technology to become more sustainable and livable. At best, they proceed not only in favour of their citizens but together with them in the first place. In addition, they enable citizens to develop initiatives of their own. So far so good.

Who is invited to the party?

The question is arising: who are those citizens? Or using Suketu Mehta’s words: Who is invited to the party? After all, making a living in big cities becomes unattainable for many. Buying an apartment in New York City is virtually beyond reach even for double-income couples. Not to speak about renting one. A mattress in a room in Chinatown NYC during an eight hours timeslot a day, costs you $ 200 a month.

Chinatown

Chinatown apartments – Photo: Getty Immages

Already now 50 percent of households in NYC spend more then 30 percent of their income at housing. Thirty percent of all households spend more than half of their income. As a consequence, 14 million households in the USA have already moved out of urban areas during the last decade. In the same period in Chicago only, the number of school children decreased by 145,000. We are in the middle of a large-scaled process of de-urbanization.

The real estate revolution

Saskia Sassen has been studying real estate in world cities since the eighties. Throughout this period, the size of speculative investments has increased annually. Over the past five years, rise has been spectacular. In 2015, it went up to $ 1 trillion, compared with ‘only’ $ 600 billion in 2014. More striking is that nowadays real estate transactions often include whole territories, for instance old industrial areas or railway yards. The purpose of these investments is demolishing existing structures and erecting fancy offices and expensive apartments. A recent example is the acquisition of Atlantic Yards in NYC for $ 5 billion. Currently a territory with small industries and homes. They will be replaced by fifteen giant apartment complexes.

Atlantic Yards

Atlantic Yards, NYC – Photo AP

A similar phenomenon can be observed in London. The sale of entire areas – for instance the area of the Battersea Power Station –  is accompanied by the privatization of public space. Granary Square near Kings Cross station is one of the biggest London ‘pops’ (private-owned public spaces) with its own rules and guards.

Granary Square, Kings Cross London – Photo: John Sturrock (the Gardian)

Booming housing costs: A global phenomenon

Booming housing costs are a global phenomenon. Even a sharp rise in rentals (sometimes 300%) indicates the beginning of gentrification in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, which have become safer places due to pacification programs. The next next step will be large scale housing in cheap high-rise apartment buildings, as happened happening in many Asian cities. Leaving a lot of empty space for prestigous destinations.

The tragic human cost of smartification

In Africa, the process of smartification also took off. A number of smart cities are being built from ‘scratch’, for instance Eko-Atlantic City in Lagos (Nigeria). Bulldozers and police force are mighty tools in the process of their creation. Recently, the High Council of Nigeria has stopped the demolition of Mpape, a neighborhood of at least 300,000 inhabitants adjacent to the capital city of Abuja, because of the absence of any prospect of rehousing of the expelled residents.

The abolition of Otodo Gbame, Lagos (Nigeria) – Photo: Common Edge

In the end, the result of unbridled speculation might be that only the rich will benefit from smartification. Amsterdam too must be vigilant. During 2013 – 2014, property sales to investors increased by 248%. In 2016, the average price for housing increased by almost 23% compared with 2015 . Affordable rental is virtually non-existant.

Because of the exclusion of a large group of citizens, the process of smartifcation is at risk turning into a proces of foolification. Foolish cities are sterile cities, inhabited by a rich cosmopolitans. Without young people socializing at in the squares, craftsmen in their workshops, middle classes people in their shops and a diverse and plural group of inhabitants, they will become dead cities, in spite of all smart technology.

This is the second of a sequence of six reviewing aspects of the smartification of cities. Fiction or reality, mission or marketing, progress or illusion. This article has already been posted in The Smart City Hub.

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Own country second, world first!

Redeeming the losers of globalization

Multinational companies[1] worldwide earned gold money in the years 1980 – 2013. In 2013 their profit after tax reached $ 7200 billion, almost 10% of the gross national product of the world. Half of the 2013 profits belong to North American and West European corporations[2]. The tremendous increase in profits is a direct consequence of globalization: The expanding global trade of goods and services at ever-lower prices, made possible by global competition, automation, offshoring, and low cost of raw materials[3].

Samenleving - olifantscurve

The question is who has benefited most from the increased wealth and who least? For many years the Serbian-American economist Branco Milanovic has focused  on answering this question[4]. He divided the world population into 10 groups for 30 consecutive years: The poorest 10%, the second-poorest 10% and so on. He calculated the change in income for each of these groups within this period. The graph below depicts the outcomes. This graph is called the elephant curve because of the eye-catching similarity with the back of an elephant.

The-Elephant-Curve

Worldwide, there are two groups of winners and two groups of losers.

The winners:

  • The richest 5% of the world, the 1% richest in particular. Half of the benefits of economic growth went to this group. Fabulously wealthy people can be found in all countries. However the majority are living in North America and West Europe.
  • The middle class within Asian countries. Its income increased about 200 to 300%. Hundreds of million people are involved, but the total monetary value of this growth is relatively limited as incomes were low.

The losers:

  • The poorest 10% of the world population. This group has gained nothing in 30 or more years. In the Republic of Congo, the average real income remained unchanged in 100 years due to corruption, self-enrichment by the rulers, natural disasters and wars.
  • The middle class in the rich countries. This group has also seen no progress in 30 years. As a matter of fact, many jobs were lost due to offshoring and automation in particular. Many people who belonged to the middle class in the end of the 20th century now have to settle for a job in the lowest paid sector. Here they enter into competition with migrants, who belong to the other group of losers.

Samenleving - wrong side of capitalism

Social democracy in Western countries has failed to notice this structural change and as a consequence its voters left for the extreme right or the extreme left. In the USA, the frustrated middle class helped Donald Trump to power and in the UK it voted for Brexit.

Policy makers in Western countries can learn from the elephant curve. Among others, the following policy measures will support the revitalization of the middle class worldwide:

  • Reduction of difference in status and income between jobs
  • Redistribution of jobs through a reduction of working hours and flexible retirement, supplemented with the option of a basic-income
  • Fair tax payment by companies, among others to co-finance the external effects of automation.
  • Realistic prices for raw materials and agricultural products for the benefit of the workers in poor countries and the farmers in rich countries
  • Supporting entrepreneurship in developing countries
  • Discouraging labour migration, among others to limit brain-drain
  • Continued support for peacekeeping in conflicts around the world, therefore strengthening UN rather then NATO.

In the long term fighting inequality is in everyone’s interest.

[1] Included are listed and unlisted companies with a turnover of at least $ 200 million. See: https://hbr.org/2015/10/the-future-and-how-to-survive-it

[2] Companies around the world still make huge profits, but the share of ‘Western countries’ has decreased as the distribution over the world of production is becoming more evenly . Further, especially in Western countries small innovative companies take over part of the production of the powerful but rather inflexible multinationals.

[3] He is from 2014 professor at New York University and was a researcher at the World Bank. For a recent interview: Humo February 8, 2017: https://blendle.com/getpremium/item/bnl-humo-20170207-132032

[4] Where necessary, he further subdivided these groups.

 

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