The global urban population grew by nearly 4%, or 700 million people, between 2010 and 2019. This population growth is a result of births in urban areas, the expansion of urban infrastructure into neighbouring suburban and rural areas, and rural to urban migration. Consequently, more people have gained access to globalized networks of goods and services, including food, travel, technology, and occupations.
Globalization is defined as the increasing interconnectedness of economies from all over the world. This interconnectedness is visible in the way economies depend on each other via trade, migration, and now, remote work. Globalized systems converge in cities, making them vital economic and cultural centers, but cities are also hubs for pollution-related illnesses and environmental degradation.
Despite the benefits of increased cultural interconnectedness in cities, the COVID-19 pandemic has created uncertainty about the financial and non-financial costs of living in cities compared to suburban or rural areas. For this analysis, suburbs will be considered rural areas too.
As of July 2020, 90% of all coronavirus cases were reported from urban areas. Rural-to-urban migration has a significant role to play in this. While the exact number of rural migrants to urban areas is not known, it is possible to attribute much of urban growth to migration.
Along with the threat of the pandemic, cities are faced with increased population density in areas of low-income housing (“slums” and “shanty-towns” comprise nearly 33% of urban population housing as of 2014) and increased strain on public welfare infrastructures like waste management and water filtration systems. This means that in countries like Brazil and India, higher population density in urban slums reduces the quality of sanitation.
Now when social distancing and increased sanitation are necessary to avoid infection, low-income communities across the world, particularly those made up of rural-to-urban migrants, are faced with a choice. They must continue to live in crowded slums and shanty-towns to experience the benefits of living in a globalized city or shift to rural areas to reduce the probability of being infected with COVID-19.
The need for physical space and a source of income has resulted in the growth of de-urbanization in countries like India, where 19.36 million rural-to-urban migrant workers comprise a significant portion of the urban population. De-urbanization is the movement of people away from cities into neighbouring suburbs and villages, away from hubs of globalization. It is one of the consequences of the equivalent of 655 million global job losses in the first half of 2020.
Globalized to localized cities: what are the implications?
De-urbanization isn’t new. In the 1900s, as railroads were built worldwide, people moved outside cities which lengthened their commute to work in the city but allowed them to live in larger houses. Rural real estate costs less than urban real estate, based on proximity to travel routes and city centers. This means urban to rural migration is a viable option for those who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
In India, the exodus of migrant workers, often minimum wage labourers, from cities to their villages shows that deglobalization, which is a potential consequence of deurbanization, can negatively affect the export and internal economies of countries. Nearly $26 billion of revenue was lost as a result of economic shutdown and job losses in India.
While some economic sectors like technology (companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Tata Group) were able to continue globalized operations by offering employees remote positions, manufacturing-heavy industries had to downsize significantly. This is because the latter requires physical operations.
Surprisingly, the increase of remote work across industries has actually been a catalyst for the movement away from cities, or centers of globalization. This means that de-urbanization, although distancing people from cities, has the potential to redefine the methods by which globalization takes place. The integration of human innovation from across the world which once occurred through the convergence of railway lines and international airports now has the potential to happen using technology and virtual worlds that maintain human connection.
Building tech-forward rural centers of globalization
Remote work relies on innovation in technology and the construction of non-urban networks. Technology and artificial intelligence (AI)-driven globalization has the potential to connect human minds and innovation across national boundaries without the need for humans to physically interact.
The pandemic has already fostered examples of the virtual convergence of human innovation to continue to further globalization, which can be applied beyond COVID-19. Some of these innovative examples are virtual tourism, virtual classrooms, and information technology (IT) careers themselves.
Tourism is an asset for many countries like South Africa, Kenya, and Brazil. Many suburban and rural areas like wildlife retreats in various parts of the world like Africa, Asia, and South America are already home to a convergence of human ideas and innovation in the form of tourists from all over the world. With the use of network systems engineering and virtual reality technology, the tourism industry is globalizing the world without urbanizing it.
This movement of globalization to a virtual platform has the potential to curb the economic losses caused by a lack of physical interactions between people, while also sidestepping the environmental and social dangers of continued urbanization. This means that by digitizing an economic sector like tourism, the perceived loss of globalization through de-urbanization can lead to increased accessibility to global systems.
Using virtual tourism entails an increased use of technology to facilitate non-urban globalization, which has benefits beyond the pandemic. In rural areas, this could mean an increased availability of technology-related jobs to maintain globalization systems.
An increase in jobs, while remote, will require the construction of physical infrastructures such as the laying of internet lines and electrical towers in non-urban areas. This infrastructure could potentially create jobs in rural areas and provide low-income communities with access to a globalized world at costs lower than those in cities.
Virtual tourism is only one of the many ways that technology is already evolving to foster globalization outside cities. With continuous evolutions in technology and the things it can control, there is little uncertainty that globalization is no longer restricted to the physical convergence of human migration in large cities. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that accessibility to globalized systems can occur from rural areas just as it can from urban hubs, especially through remote work. This means de-urbanization bolstered by technology and the internet can pave the way for a globalized world outside cities and their harmful effects.