Urbanization is our present and it is our future. Between the recently completed UN Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, and Iraqi Special Operations entering Mosul, starting what may be a complex urban battle, we face constant reminders that much of the world’s population now lives in cities. How we protect rights, foster development, interact with the environment, organize politically, and fight wars is increasingly an urban story.
Consider the bleak picture of megacities and the future of combat in this leaked Pentagon video (at the link and also embedded above). Some key take-aways from the video:
- By 2030 60% of world’s population will be in cities. Most of the urban growth will be in the developing world.
- Illicit networks will fill the gaps left by overextended and undercapitalized governments.
- Growth will magnify the increasing economic separation between rich and poor, even thought they may be in close proximity. Uneven growth means that slums and shantytowns will rapidly expand alongside ever increasing levels of prosperity.
- Moreover, religious and ethnic tensions will be a defining element of these urban environments
- Megacities are complex systems where people and structures are compressed together in ways that defy both our understanding of city planning and military doctrines.
- Living habitats will extend from the high-rise to the ground level cottage to subterranean labyrinths, each defined by its own social code and rule of law.
- Social structures will also be stressed. Criminal networks will offer opportunity for the growing class of unemployed and will be part of the nervous system of non-nation state, unaligned, individuals and organizations that live and work in the shadow of national rule.
- There will be increasing complexity of human targeting as proportionally smaller number of adversaries mix with an increasingly large population of citizens.
- The interactions of governmental failure, illicit economies, economic growth and spreading poverty, informal networks, environmental degradation, and other factors leads to an environment of convergence hidden within the enormous scale and complexity of megacities, which become the source of adversaries and hybrid threats.
- Classic military strategy counsels either (a) avoiding the cities or establishing a cordon to wait out the adversary or (b) draining the swamp of non-combatants and then engaging the adversary in high-intensity conflict. But megacities are too large to isolate or cordon in their entirety. The U.S. military will need to operate within the urban environment and current counterinsurgency doctrine is inadequate to address the sheer scale of megacities
- “This is the world of our future. It is one we are not prepared to effectively operate within and it is unavoidable.”
According to FoxtrotAlpha, this video was produced for a course at the Joint Special Operations University on “Advanced Special Operations Combating Terrorism,” it is focused on urbanization from the perspective of military planning. A 2010 issue of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s journal was devoted to humanitarian law and conflict in built-up urban areas. The ICRC also had recommendations for the UN’s Habitat III conference that just ended.
The topics covered, though, are very much the province of law and lawyers, including the needs of the urban poor, the operations of criminal networks, environmental degradation and climate change, the law of armed conflict and targeting in built-up areas, informal rulemaking in communities (“order without law”), informal markets and economies, and the role of non-state actors, to name only some of the topics that crop up. While this video is (understandably) focused on the implications on combat operations, what I also see is the need for sustained engagement in the protection of human rights, the distribution of public goods, the fostering of inter-communal dispute resolution, and the spurring of bottom-up economic development in megacities.
The video emphasizes that the future is urban. But, as the writer William Gibson has said, “The future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.”