Why it's useless to have borders between countries

TECH Insider | 17 February 2016
By Chris Weller 

Parag Khanna thinks our world map is all wrong, and it could be tearing us apart.

At this year's TED Conference, Khanna, a best-selling author and urbanization expert, argued the lines we draw to divide countries — the political borders — actually lost their relevance a long time ago.

The only borders that matter now, Khanna says, are ones based on connectivity.

Technologies like cellular network, satellites, and underwater cables have made communication a breeze. Infrastructure like bridges, tunnels, highways, and railways take faraway places and link them together — for travel, business, politics, and more. 

In other words, it truly is a small world, after all.

Khanna refers to this way of studying the world as "connectography" — geographical study through the lens of human connections. "Connectivity, not sovereignty," Khanna says, "has become the organizing principle of the human species."

Khanna points out the fact that the world is becoming much more urban, and it shows no plan of stopping. 

In 1800, for example, only 3% of people lived in cities. By 1950, that rate had risen to 30%, and today it sits at an even split. In developed nations, the rate is even higher — approximately 74%. 

It's no surprise why: Cities are full of life and opportunity. They have the best food, the freshest ideas. They also support the most people, which means they quickly learn how to adapt their infrastructure and rely on other cities that may have more to offer.

Khanna sees this shift redefining what it means to be a country altogether.

"In a megacity, countries can be suburbs of cities," he says.

Consider a place like China, where there are a handful of megacities all boasting populations over 10 million and GDPs in the hundreds of millions. Smaller countries on the outskirts of those megacities — Mongolia, Bhutan, Laos — in effect serve the same function as a town to a city. 

Research suggests that by 2025, 600 cities will produce 60% of the entire world's GDP. 

For Khanna, this kind of reorganization totally shakes up the way we define borders. It's no use, Khanna says, to draw an arbitrary line in the sand when there is a global network of megacities interacting all the time.

"You cannot understand one megacity without understanding its connections to others," he says.

Issues like inequality (a sorry hallmark of cities) and climate change (a byproduct of industrialization) do concern some people.  

At the same time, the refugee crisis in Europe and Donald Trump's pro-wall rhetoric show that borders are still very much a part of life today. 

Khanna sees the power of connections helping reduce fear here, too. "North America does not need more walls," he says. "It needs more connections."

Urban areas have the special advantage of putting resources to work.

Many cities are large enough to have the resources needed for affordable and efficient public housing, new transportation networks, and sustainable buildings. China has implemented driving restrictionsto reverse the pollution it's caused. Some Western cities have started rejecting driving altogether.

A new world map under Khanna's vision celebrates the ways big cities are working together in solving global problems — because that's what they are, he says. They're problems we must all confront.

At one point in his talk, he mentions the oft-used phrase "Geography is destiny," which suggests the place you grow up determines how you'll live out your life. That's wrong, Khanna says.

"The future has a new and more hopeful model," he says. "Connectivity is destiny."

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