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What the world’s megacities can teach Dublin

Dubai is not for everyone. The glittering metropolis, which erupts out of the desert, captures much that is good and bad about humanity in a few square miles.

On the good side, this extraordinary trading hub, reveals what human ambition can achieve. As it waves its two diamond-encrusted, air-conditioned fingers to Mother Nature, a city where none should be, Dubai stands testament to what can be done through sheer force of will and extraordinary urban vision.

On the other hand, Dubai’s legions of mostly Asian labourers, who toil away under the searing heat, remind us again of the world’s unacceptable inequalities and how – irrespective of the huge strides made in recent years – the lottery of location or the accident of birth, dictate our time on this Earth. The city’s success is partly a product of deeply problematic bonded labour.

In the next decade, for the first time in human history, more people are likely to be born in cities than the countryside. This has profound implications for society, politics and human development.

Prior to 1600, it’s estimated that the share of the world population living in urban settings was lower than 5 per cent. By 1800, this share had reached 7 per cent; and by 1900, 16 per cent. Until very recently, only developed countries in Europe, North America, Japan and Australia had majority urban populations. This has changed rapidly in the past few years.

In 1960, there were twice as many people in the world living in rural settings (two billion) versus urban (one billion). Over the second half of the 20th century, this gap closed via rapid growth in urban areas.

In 2007, rural and urban populations were roughly equal in size – both at 3.33 billion people. Since 2007, the urban population has continued to increase rapidly, while the rural population has grown only marginally. In 2016, it’s estimated that four billion people lived in urban areas, and 3.4 billion in rural.

There is a strong relationship between urbanisation and income: as countries get richer, they tend to become more urbanised.

The most striking global demographic phenomenon is the rise in the number of “megacities”. Beijing in 1950, for example, had a population of 1.7 million. By 2015, this was more than 10 times higher, at more than 18 million.

By 2035, it’s expected this will increase further to 25 million. Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, increased from less than half a million in 1950 to almost 18 million in 2015 (and is projected to reach 31 million by 2030). Most of the world’s densest cities are in developing countries.

Why is this happening?

Personal act

I like to think about the act of moving from the countryside to the city as a transformative personal act. People who want to invent a new life beyond what has been stipulated by family and tradition of circumstance, tend to move. Moving is an act of individualism.

From this stem all sorts of other expectations, ambitions and dreams. Although moving to the city is often seen as an economic decision, to make more money or for better prospects, I am not sure that economics captures or does justice to the human urge to transform yourself.

Maybe it’s better to see that moving is about much more than the lure of potential wealth; it is the lure of participation in modernity. Cities are where modernity happens and places that allow people to unshackle themselves from the restrictions of the past and imagine a future.

In a sense a great city is not just a place, it is an idea and underpinning that idea is freedom. It has ever been thus. This explains why in the era of Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls, hundreds of thousands of Irish people fled the countryside. It wasn’t just about money; it was about personal liberation and fear of suffocation.

The same is now happening across huge swathes of the globe. Driving all this is communication, technology and the internet.

Cities live or die by how they deal with the expectations of these new citizens, keen not just to make money but to make their mark. This goes for the Irish professionals sweating on treadmills at air conditioned gyms in Dubai Marina and for the Pakistani labourers toiling in the searing heat outside.

Both, in very different ways, are living out experiences that began as acts of personal transformation.

When a city becomes a magnet for migrants, as Dublin is now in a way that it wasn’t before, the management of that city becomes even more crucial. An expanding city outgrows its infrastructure in the same way that a teenager outgrows his runners.

Therefore, a growing city has to keep building train lines, metros, apartments, schools, hospitals and public parks. It never stops, because the city is a living organism.

This is why cities need directly elected mayors with executive – not legislative – powers. The city throws up all sorts of problems, such as traffic, housing and sewerage. These don’t demand legislation but solutions.

Therefore the executive has to be close to the problem. Someone has to be thinking of the sewers when they are brushing their teeth in the morning. This demands a fixer, a mayor with whom the buck stops every day, not just every four years. Fixing things doesn’t always make you popular; it means smashing a few eggs to make the omelette, but that is the cost of progress.

Globally, urbanisation is an inexorable force. In Ireland, this means that our cities will need better management in the years ahead, directly elected mayors with tax-raising, executive powers and large city budgets are the way forward.

Otherwise the city will be strangled by its own managerial incompetence. The idea will be smothered, and the dream will die.

What the world’s megacities can teach Dublin

Dubai is not for everyone. The glittering metropolis, which erupts out of the desert, captures much that is good and bad about humanity in a few square miles.

On the good side, this extraordinary trading hub, reveals what human ambition can achieve. As it waves its two diamond-encrusted, air-conditioned fingers to Mother Nature, a city where none should be, Dubai stands testament to what can be done through sheer force of will and extraordinary urban vision.

On the other hand, Dubai’s legions of mostly Asian labourers, who toil away under the searing heat, remind us again of the world’s unacceptable inequalities and how – irrespective of the huge strides made in recent years – the lottery of location or the accident of birth, dictate our time on this Earth. The city’s success is partly a product of deeply problematic bonded labour.

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Why Irish apartment rents are like the Cuban car market

Two years ago, my son spent half his transition year in the Vedado area of Havana, a few miles west of Havana’s extraordinary old city. Havana is a vibrant city. There might not be a more exciting place to learn Spanish – and the competition is stiff. The Spanish-speaking world hosts some of the most pulsating cities on Earth.

He stayed with a Cuban family, immersed in the fascinating psychodrama that is everyday life on that island.

When I went to visit, I was delighted to encounter himself and his mate haggling with the local cab drivers over fares, gesticulating wildly, half theatre/half commerce, in an accent that the locals told me was pure Havana.

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Dún Laoghaire typifies Ireland’s poor use of land

Ireland’s population is surging, the fastest-growing in Europe, on target to hit five million citizens next year. Such burgeoning dynamism implies that our approach to planning and urbanisation needs to be revised.

The new reality promises all sorts of opportunities. For example, a rapidly rising population and, more significantly, large-scale increases in employment signal lower income taxes.

When your population rises, so does your tax base, and therefore income tax levels should fall, if we manage it properly. Conversely, as taxes fall and demand for housing rises, house prices are liable to increase unless we manage the economy better than we do at the moment.

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Why your boss earns so much more than you

One of the most difficult questions for any parent is: “What should I do in the future?” When your child asks you what is a good job, can we honestly say we have any idea?

Many jobs that pay well now, such as the highly sought-after data analyst, didn’t exist 10 years ago. What hope have we, mere parents, of predicting the future jobs market? Things are changing so quickly, driven by technology. Consequently, even making a stab at what might be vogue in five years is highly speculative.

The best we can do is look at big trends that are emerging all over the world.

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Brexit is an opportunity. Let’s use it

There is something deeply elemental about being woken up by streaks of forked lightning illuminating the darkness in electric blue followed almost immediately by booming claps of thunder as a violent Adriatic storm passes just over the roof.

The Romans understood the power of the elements and observed that, in mid-August, the searing heat and soaring temperatures of the previous weeks tended to clash with colder weather coming in from the north or west, leading to dramatic electric storms. They took this to be a sign from the gods that one season was over and another starting.

Emperor Augustus named the 15th of August Feriae Augusti or the festival of Augustus, falling in the middle of the most significant month in the year, which naturally took the Emperor’s name. Today all Italia still closes on August 15th or Ferragosto, the modern Italian version of the Latin name.

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The rules of economics have changed. Could someone tell central bankers?

This week, the column will focus on global economic policy and why central banks – still the most powerful economic institutions in the world – don’t understand how disruptive technology is changing the way our world works.

What if they are stuck in a late 20th-century mindset not sufficiently clued in to the impact of new technology and therefore, as the world worries about an impending recession, they are like old generals, fighting the last war not the new one?

This week saw a flurry of activity from the world’s central bankers. From the US to New Zealand, Thailand and India, interest rates were slashed to all-time lows. Why the hyperactivity now? What they are up to?

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Boris Johnson is like an incompetent kidnapper taking Ireland hostage

The Brexit saga has become a bizarre hostage situation: Boris Johnson is the kidnapper, the ransom is the backstop and Ireland is the hostage. Johnson is demanding the EU drop the backstop or he will shoot the hostage. We’ve been here before. Traditionally, the mantra has been: “We never negotiate with terrorists.” Let’s see what happens.

We all appreciate the notion that if we reward bad behaviour, a kidnapper will resort to intimidation again. The European Union has a choice to make. Ireland will survive this. It might well be convulsive but the economy is strong enough, just. And then what?

When you think about it, the “no-deal” option is only “no deal for now”. No deal is not a long-term option; ultimately, the United Kingdom will have to do a trade deal with the EU. The facts are pretty straightforward – 47 per cent of all UK exports go to the EU and, in turn, 52 per cent of all UK imports come from the EU. No matter how the hostage drama turns out, no matter what the political and economic fallout, the UK will be back at the table very soon. The more chaos at British ports, the shorter the self-imposed mercantile lockout.

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Brexit Britain: The more demented our neighbour looks, the saner Ireland appears

As Ireland is one of the most globalised economies in the world, we should pay more attention to global trends than we pay to local or regional ones. Granted, given what is happening in London, this week has been an epoch-changing one in terms of Anglo-Irish relations. No one can be reassured by the complexion of the UK cabinet and their collective delusion that only Ireland now stands between them and their great neo-Elizabethan swashbuckling Brexit adventure.

But Westminster is not the only story. Because of Ireland’s trade flows with the US and the EU, the outlook for the global economy is as important for us as the political machinations in Whitehall, even though it doesn’t seem so right now. In fact, as a trading nation which exports six times per head more per worker than the UK, Ireland is much more plugged into decisions taken all over the world than those unveiled in London.

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