The balance of following the crowd, vs moving against the current is sometimes a delicate one.  We need both strategies in our repertoire.

An interesting question for discussion is the one raised by Edward L. Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard:

Why Has Globalization Led to Bigger Cities?

UN map showing megacities of 5.0 million plus.

If the world is so flat, then why are cities growing so quickly, especially in the third world?

One might have thought that striking declines in the costs of shipping goods and communicating knowledge across space would have led to a great dispersal of population. After all, it is at least technically possible to telecommute over great distances. Yet the share of the world living in urbanized areas increased from 40.9 percent in 1985 to more than 50 percent today.

In the developing world, urbanization has often taken the form of exploding populations in megacities. Mumbai’s population increased to 19 million in 2007 from 10.8 million in 1985. Bangalore, the urban symbol of the flat world, has had its population double over two decades, to 6.8 million today from 3.4 million in 1985.

The growth of these cities and the continuing strength of older urban areas — like New York, London and Paris — is no accident. Globalization and new technologies attract people to big cities, by increasing the returns to urban proximity. While it would be technically possible to sit and write software somewhere in the Vale of Kashmir (at least if you didn’t mind the bullets), the innovators in Indian information technology cluster around one another in Bangalore. America’s computer wizards likewise choose to cluster in Silicon Valley rather than disperse.

Why has information technology led to urban concentration rather than a great programmer diaspora?

Globalization and technological change have increased the returns to being smart; human beings are a social species that get smart by hanging around smart people. A programmer could work in the foothills of the Himalayas, but that programmer wouldn’t learn much. If she came to Bangalore, then she would figure out what skills were more valuable, and what companies were growing, and which venture capitalists were open to new ideas in her field.

The information flows that come from proximity might also help to build the relationships that would enable her to create her own start-up. A remarkable number of information-technology start-ups in India were formed by partners who connected in Bangalore.

Knowledge moves more quickly at close quarters, and as a result, cities are often the gateways between continents and civilizations.

More than 2,500 years ago, the knowledge of the Mediterranean world made its way to Greece through Athens. Twelve hundred years later, Greek and Indian knowledge entered the Islamic world through the Abbasid Caliphate’s House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Eastern wisdom came west again, through Venice and the cities of Spain. The circle continues today, as Western technology makes its way east, again through urban portals like Bangalore. Since there is so much for developing countries to gain economically by integrating with the developed world, the urban gateways to the West attract millions.

There is a great deal of concern today about whether the megacities of Asia are just too big.

After all, from a Western perspective, many developing cities have bad air, bad water, awful congestion and poor housing conditions. The crowded slums of Mumbai can seem pretty terrible, and rural villages maintain their quaint, romantic appeal, at least to people who don’t have to live in them. After all, Gandhi himself wrote that “If India is to attain true freedom and through India the world also, then sooner or later the fact must be recognized that people will have to live in villages, not in towns, in huts, not in palaces.”

But there is no future in rural poverty. Nehru, in his response to Gandhi, had it right: “a village, normally speaking, is backward intellectually and culturally and no progress can be made from a backward environment.” The slums of Mumbai attract hundreds of thousands of migrants because they offer more hope than the static, backward-looking world of rural India. The millions of poor people who choose to live in Mumbai, and Bangalore, reflect the strength of these cities, which offer economic opportunity not found in Gandhi’s beloved villages.

The right response to the problems of megacities is not to get misty-eyed about village life, but rather to work to improve the quality of infrastructure in those growing urban areas.

Abundant land hides many sins, including the failures of government. But when people crowd into cities, the costs of governmental failure become painful and obvious. The great challenge facing the growing cities of India is whether the public sector can take the difficult steps that would lead to clean water, better toilets, faster commutes and less crime. Restricting the growth of India’s cities would mean restricting the economic progress of India’s economy, and that would be a mistake. A better path is to figure out how to make those cities more livable even as they continue to grow.