Small is Beautiful

There is a rise in small-scale international trade, and trade from countries which up to now have been on the margins of the global economy

Loretta Napoleoni

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Il mondo, 2004, courtesy of Olivia Barrett, Per Hüttner, Pascal Bircher, Ruby Lowe

The current food crisis is redesigning the globalized economy and the complex relationship between industry and agriculture. In 2007 the planet officially turned urban, with more people living in cities than in the country, but in the modern megacities there is just not enough money to feed the poor. More than one billion people live on less than two dollars a day, not enough to buy a piece of bread in the poor outskirts of Amman or the slums of Haiti. The voracity of the up and coming Asian middle classes, barricaded in the top neighbourhoods of Mumbai and Shanghai, where the population is growing at the rate of 15 million a year, is encroaching on the food monopoly of the west.

The cities with their skyscrapers will be a hive for a minimum percentage of the population employed in the service industry. All round there will be the urban archipelago, or production belt

For decades American and European protectionist agricultural policies prevented other continents from investing in this sector: the production costs of the world’s two biggest exporters, the US and Europe, were simply unbeatable, subsidized as they were by tax payers. And so the countryside of the developing world gradually emptied, and the farmers’ children and grandchildren went to swell the numbers in the slums of the east and west in search of work to earn a crust. Hidden from the eyes of the world by urban residential marginalization, they became invisible citizens. This is how it was in the past; the present and future are a different story.

The dramatic rise in the prices of raw materials, food and oil has imposed new economic rules on the globalized village. There is a rise in international trade on a small scale, and from countries which up to now have been on the margins of the global economy. There are very few now able to afford 25 thousand ton shiploads of wheat costing over 10 million dollars. Purchases are smaller and more frequent, involving containers rather than 50 thousand ton Panamax ships. And wheat is increasingly being purchased from the world’s new granaries in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Central Asia. And from Africa, where at current prices it is possible to invest in agriculture. Western conglomerates’ economies of scale are wavering and it is now possible for small companies to compete on the international market. This applies to all primary commodities, from wheat to fertilizers, from fruit to oil.

Many of the players in the new economy currently reside in the slums of the modern megacities that the UN terms neighbourhoods or communities, where from 200 to one million people live in critical conditions, without basic infrastructures like a water supply, electricity and sewers. The inhabitants are truck drivers who load up sulphur from Iraq bound for Mersin, dockers who pack it into containers bound for Argentina and those who unload it on the other side of the world and transport it to its final destination. Or the African sailors who load ships with coffee and bananas destined for the ports of western India; the small-scale Nigerian traders who export containers of seeds to China; the Chinese businessmen who counterfeit western designer goods. Very poor people, for many of whom hunger is still a problem, but who have caught a whiff of hope, and are determined to make a go of it. These people have always worked outside the confines of the traditional economy, in the so-called informal economy, which according to the UN is as large as its formal counterpart. Lately, however, they have also started contributing to the latter. The goods these workers ship are subject to customs and duties, which go into the coffers of the state, which sooner or later will acknowledge their existence. And the voice of the poor is already being heard in the megacities of the global village, from Cairo to Karachi, protesting against the cost of living. The authoritarian governments of these countries are beginning to fear the consequences. The poor have a voice and they are starting to emerge from their dense urban jungle.

The new urban structure of developing countries will look beyond cities and beyond national borders

Urban development is guided by governments, not by the private sector, we should remember. The state designs the neighbourhoods of future cities and redesigns the depressed outskirts where the new class of small-scale business people is emerging. Cities will have to reflect this new economic phenomenon and function accordingly.

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Containers near Tughlaqabad fort, photo: Saad.Akhtar

These will be self-sufficient islands where everything, including credit, will have to be structured on a reduced scale. Microcredit, which has saved many of the world’s slum dwellers from the bleakest poverty, can be extended to finance the infrastructures necessary for the new urban archipelagos: schools, libraries, community centres, clinics, and markets selling local produce, can all be financed with small loans. These infrastructures will be dedicated exclusively to the local community, a small community that will never exceed half a million people. The new urban structure of developing countries will look beyond cities and beyond national borders. Ports, motorways, trains and buses, all the routes of commercial communication will fan out towards the country, the mines, the small factories where the resources are, and towards the rest of the world. The cities with their skyscrapers will be a hive for a minimum percentage of the population employed in the service industry. All round there will be the urban archipelago, or production belt.

The urbanization process sparked by the Industrial Revolution is petering out, and we are facing a new paradigm, an outstanding era of great structural changes. The outskirts of the megacities will be ideally placed to exploit the new economy and architecture will have to tackle this. Utopia? Even Charles Dickens, who dreamed of London without its poverty-riddled slums, was considered a utopian, yet the Industrial Revolution heralded radical changes in the structure of the city, regenerating it.

Today London is the city with the most green areas in the world, and even the smog of the early 20th century is gone. The revolution of the small-scale economy of the global village will give rise to equally radical changes. And those able to translate these into the architectural lines of the new urban archipelago will contribute to progress.