Cities are growing quickly, often with large populations living in slum-like conditions. Growing access to militarily-like technologies will increase the risk of small groups being able to have large effects, and potentially of lawlessness taking hold in a megacity in a poor country. However, popular unrest can also indicate the legitimate aspirations of a growing middle class for better city governance. How can we manage fast-growing cities to minimize security concerns and meet the needs of citizens for public services?

The world is increasingly urbanized. Megacities – urban areas with populations exceeding 10 million people – already exist on five continents, and the number and size of these areas are growing. According to UN estimates, almost two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2040, with about one-third of urban dwellers – some 2 billion people – living in slum-like conditions.

The combination of rapid expansion and poor living conditions in slums creates governance challenges for cities’ ecosystems, including water, power, and green space. Slum-like conditions allow diseases to spread rapidly. Many such growing urban areas will also be situated along the world’s waterways and will be especially vulnerable to the unfolding effects of climate change, including increased sea levels and more severe natural disasters.

City governance will be particularly and severely tested by security issues, as population density and poverty create conditions for civil unrest. Technological advances are diffusing power to individuals and small groups, who have increasing scope to threaten large numbers of people and have a strategic impact with relatively little investment. Access to militarily-like technologies will continue to increase, including improvised explosive devices and handheld rocket launchers; robotics and other unmanned systems such as drones; chemical and biological agents, with the ongoing revolution in synthetic biology likely to create new capacities for even small-tech labs to manufacture new kinds of viruses; and 3D printing, for example of weapon parts.

Growing dependence on “smart” city infrastructure will create new vulnerability to cyberattacks. Both the spread of information technology and urban population density will enable individuals to find ideologically like-minded others more easily.

Lack of effective governance and security in cities lowers the barriers for such groups to form and increases their potential effect on others. Particularly in fragile states, the effects of such lawlessness could be significant, with consequences likely spilling across borders. Collapsed governance structures in key megacities could draw in the international community by igniting transnational ethnic or religious tensions, threatening critical resources, allowing for the spread of infectious diseases, or otherwise crippling states whose stability is critical to the security of broader regions. Moreover, urban areas are substantially more complex for security forces to operate within, owing in large part to the difficulty separating criminals, terrorists and others from non-combatants. In many fragile countries, the military will be the most capable − or even the only viable − security arm of the government, so it may be the force of choice for handling threats that arise inside megacities. Even in the most advanced militaries, however, forces are not experienced in such operations. Security forces will thus require significant training in tactics and procedures to keep order in a manner that protects vulnerable civilian populations.

How can cities put in place effective governance and security structures to meet these challenges? What does effective, neighbourhood-level community policing look like in a megacity? How can a sense of neighbourhood community best be nurtured in megacities, with neighbourhood structures strengthened and linked to city-level policing and the military? What forms of human rights training should militaries undergo to prepare them for a potentially greater role in urban order-keeping?

If security issues can be addressed, the growth of urban areas represents an enormous opportunity for humanity. The continuing shift in world population to cities will likely be paralleled by continuing growth in the middle class, pressure for political rights and liberties, and better education levels. To the extent that protests in cities represent legitimate demands of the population – as, for example, with recent environmental protests in China aimed at improving policies to tackle air pollution – the response represents an opportunity not only to make cities more stable and secure, but also more equitable and prosperous. The growing importance of local governments could also spur democratic reforms that might otherwise be stifled at the nation-state level.

Cities are associated with innovation, so growing urbanization could also spur new ideas to solve issues of climate, health, water, energy and transportation. Population density could assist in making delivery of public services more cost-effective, promising improvements in education, sanitation, vaccinations and access to medical facilities. Urbanization thus holds out the promise of improving the condition of humanity, if governance challenges, especially related to security, can be met.

How can the security challenges of urbanization be kept under control, the legitimate aspirations of urban populations met, and the potential of cities for innovation harnessed?

This piece is one of a number of individual perspectives from the Global Strategic Foresight Community of the World Economic Forum for the Annual Meeting 2015. To read more access the full collection.

Author: Kathleen Hicks is senior vice president, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and director of the International Security Program at CSIS.