Megacities: challenges and opportunities for citizen engagement


Picture of Katarzyna Nawrot
Katarzyna Nawrot

Professor, Poznan University of Economics and Business and member Committee of Future Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences

Katarzyna Anna Nawrot is Professor at Poznan University of Economics & European Young Leader (EYL40)

Surging population numbers together with the emergence of megacities are a new and rapidly growing phenomenon of the 21st Century. This brings about many challenges as well as opportunities for global citizens and urban residents.

Megacities ‒ cities that encompass over 10 million inhabitants and provide substantial GDP contributions ‒ are becoming unique entities in their own right, characterised by many factors, such as region and location; the advancement of the economies they are aligned with; and the role they play as an agglomeration. Megacities challenge development policies, governance and the cohesion of states.

The speed of expansion and the maturity of the urbanisation process means that megacities face different tests in their individual development and governance. Starting with the former, they are hampered by the economy, labour markets, housing, urban infrastructure, city planning and connectivity, energy supplies, security, poverty, the environment, society and citizen engagement.

Undoubtedly, however, megacities with their large number of inhabitants contribute a wealth of talent, ideas and innovation to the societies at large. Space for more communication, interaction, cooperation and competition is encouraged, and this creates the grounds for far-reaching citizen involvement in multi-faceted governance. Indeed, megacities bestow on their citizens a new platform of vast capabilities for creativity and innovative solutions, and, therefore, involving citizens is crucial to the longevity of the agglomerations.

Megacities challenge development policies, governance and the cohesion of states

Cities also play a role in providing solutions by challenging the position of central governments on issues which are important to their citizens but not necessarily addressed by the established government. As examples from both the 2016 Brexit referendum and 2016 US presidential elections demonstrate, the interests of megacities often stand alone against the dilemmas of the home state’s ongoing political or economic issues. Consequently, in Europe and elsewhere, there are cities that take the lead in solving problems where governments prove ineffective or unwilling to take action.

Major cities truly are a new competitive force, but while they might be strong in terms of economics and interconnectivity, it is the politics that is diminishing. There is an increased demand for a division of power between central and local authorities, and qualitative changes are needed, the most significant being the devolution of broader powers to prevent the possible formal or informal secession of major urban areas. With ever-expanding megacities, it is crucial that they actively involve citizens in governing change. It should be emphasised, however, that there is a dividing line between developed and developing countries in terms of citizen engagement and their role as drivers for change in emerging megacities.

The largest population growth from 1950 to the beginning of the 21st Century was recorded in Asia, where it largely went hand-in-hand with the growing urbanisation in the region. By the end of the 21st Century however, 39% of the global population is expected to live in Africa, of which more than 80% would be residing in urban areas.

Future dynamics of world urbanisation will thus be driven mainly by African cities, and the geographical concertation of urbanisation will most likely shift from Europe towards developing countries. This leaves us with a huge economic challenge, not only in Africa but in Europe as well.

The urbanisation process in developed countries was incremental in leading to the growth and welfare of its citizens. Now we observe ‒ especially in developing countries ‒ what is called ‘galloping urbanisation’: providing public goods in fast-growing agglomerations at a slower pace.

Megacities in developing countries both in Africa and in some parts of South Asia are sometimes characterised as overcrowded, maintain poor infrastructure and have limited exposure to the international economic system. They are underperforming as potential centres of creativity, obstructed by the lack in logistical preparedness for such a substantial influx of people. This leads to the deepening of developmental problems in the form of social exclusion, urban poverty, crime, growing number of slums and negative impacts on the environment.

39% of the global population is expected to live in Africa, of which more than 80% would be residing in urban areas

As increasing population rates harm African or Asian megacities, it makes it difficult for them to cater to its citizens. For example, it is common to expect that citizens are not aware of their own basic rights, professional potential and opportunities to make a positive impact on the city as it becomes overcrowded. Megacities breed talent and potential, however too much of it can become overwhelming for the population.

The transition from industrial civilisation to a ‘knowledge-based civilisation’ creates possibilities for citizen involvement never witnessed before in the human history. Consequently, the various ways of connectivity we now possess make it easier for us to communicate. Thanks to this reality, this is the perfect opportunity to establish multi-faceted partnerships and collaboration in governing change. Partnerships in megacities should reflect this and include public and private sector cooperation with academia, civil society, citizens and social media ‒ all playing their part in governance.

City-to-city collaboration in the form of cross-country and cross-continental partnerships of citizens is also needed. An institutional framework where multi-faceted governance and engagement is implemented to help provide funding, ensure sustainability of undertaken initiatives, monitor progress and measure achievements, should be brought about. New technologies also provide numerous solutions that can be used in both developed and developing countries, inspiring citizens to push for change by challenging and shaping public opinion and promoting better understanding of our collective responsibility as a population.

It is important that challenges related to the rise of megacities are taken seriously by governments. Determination to show that particular challenges and opportunities are understood and taken into account should be evident, and actively including citizen engagement in all forms of decision-making needs to be one of the key priorities.

Related activities

view all
view all
view all
Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo