Joel Profiled in Singapore’s Straits Times




Straits Times

WHEN the American trendwatcher and urban geographer Joel Kotkin spoke in San Francisco recently, a famous futurist in the audience got up and told him: ‘In future, we won’t buy houses. We’ll live in Singapore for two years, then in San Francisco for another two, and so we’ll all just be a bunch of timeshares.’

To that, Mr Kotkin retorted drily: ‘How many people do you think live this way?’ The native New Yorker has a bone to pick with the 1 per cent of society’s elite who jet about so and ‘have an inordinate hold on the media’.

Not that Mr Kotkin, 57, is any fuddy-duddy. In the 1960s, he was a bohemian working in a bookshop in Berkeley’s famous Telegraph Avenue while studying at the University of California campus there. ‘I knew what being bohemian was and was not,’ he muses.

Now a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at California’s Chapman University and adjunct fellow at the London think-tank Legatum Institute, the married father of two has just released his latest book, The Next Hundred Million: America In 2050. Widely lauded, the book follows his previously acclaimed The City: A Global History, and Tribes.

Mr Kotkin, who was born when the United States had 200 million people, will be in town to speak at the World Cities Summit on Wednesday next week. So last Friday, I asked him about the future and for his thoughts on Singapore:

What inspired your latest book?

The US passed the population mark of 300 million several years ago. I started looking into that and found that we would be 400 million by 2050. Which was quite shocking because how are we going to accommodate this number? For more than 20 years, I have been following the fact that the US has a very different trajectory from almost all advanced, industrialised countries, in that we have continued to grow our population and that we’re not ageing remotely as rapidly as other societies.

Why do Americans seem so hopeful about the future?

Some of it is just happenstance but there are three factors: First, and probably most importantly, is immigration.

In the American context, immigration has historically meant resettlement and integration into the country, as opposed to many other countries that regard immigration as something that they can turn on and off and that immigrants are there for particular tasks but not as future citizens… Immigrants are more likely to start families and very often come from Asia, Africa or Latin America, where family values are still very strong.

So they reassert all that in America and that’s why a majority of Americans now live in suburbs, where you can raise children.

The second factor is space. Today, if you go to Mexico City or Mumbai, the poor and, even more so, the rich, won’t have more than two children. I went to a monastery in South Korea and asked a monk there why Koreans are now facing depopulation. He said: ‘You buy a 1,000 sq ft apartment when you’re 40 – if you’re lucky – which is an hour’s train ride from Seoul every day. Who’s got the energy or space to raise children?’

The one thing about Americans is that around 60 per cent of them live in suburbs (where) they have a little backyard and privacy.

The third factor is religion. About 60 per cent of Americans consider religion important, whereas only about 15 per cent of Japanese, French and Germans think so. Religious people almost by nature have more kids. Religion also teaches you to try and look beyond yourself (and) contribute to others. Whereas very secular societies say: ‘I’m worried about saving the whales.’

Americans are going through a period of pessimism now but many still say ‘we really want to have more people and grow’. Whereas many other advanced societies have begun to roll into what the architect Austin Williams calls the poverty of ambition.

Why can’t your many critics see what you see?

Someone once criticised my book on the history of cities and said that I actually don’t write enough about the aesthetics. But cities aren’t about aesthetics, they’re about people – how they live, congregate and function in communities. My notion of the city and the country is somewhat at odds with the media’s preferred conventional wisdom.

And what is that?

If you read most futurists in the last 40 years, their consistent point of view has been that there won’t be families or communities and religion will die. That hasn’t happened; I’m a great believer in historical inertia and the basic DNA of people…
The scientific and managerial class has a very structured view of ‘this is going to happen’ with very little sense of what the impact on society will be. I mean, you get up in the morning to work hard, but why are you doing it?

Most people do it to fuel their hyperconsumerism?

Sometimes that’s incoherent and painful. If you think about the resurgence of Islam, it has, obviously, some very negative characteristics, but Muslims are also not asking stupid questions. It’s not stupid to ask: ‘What is the meaning of life?’ or ‘How should men and women relate to each other?’ Should everything be a combination of what you might call the cash nexus and the media’s flesh nexus? Are the economic world and the sensate world the only things that matter? Is there something beyond them? These are important questions and you don’t have to be a reactionary to ask these.

If the future is suburbia, what would you advise Singapore to do?

I’d just try to sit down with people and ask: ‘Where do you want this society to go? What would make it possible for you to have more kids?’ And then you have to ask: ‘Do you want to become like, say, Dubai and be completely dependent on foreigners with work permits?’

Some Singaporeans say they wouldn’t mind that.

Well, you know what? That may be your karma. And let’s see how that works in time. Maybe there is a place in the evolving global economy for ‘hotels’ like Dubai, and in a mega sense, London, Manhattan…

But what’s the worth in that for Singapore?

Singapore’s great advantage has been that it is a functioning middle-class society that expatriates can go into and feel comfortable and safe. Singapore is one of the great achievements of social development in the 20th century. But it’s ‘Now what?’

Well, what now?

Trying to duplicate a European or American sense of hip and cool isn’t going to be genuine… If you’re Singaporean and have the means and your biggest interest is going to the opera, then you shouldn’t live in Singapore. People are driven to different places by the sense that there’s a kind of gestalt that takes place and it isn’t one gestalt. There is no one-size-fits-all and we’re actually into an era of greater differentiation.

So what would you suggest Singapore emulate?

Venice in Italy. It was not a democracy so I’m eliminating the political issue. But it had the ability to allow for spontaneous things to happen and drew on Roman, Catholic, Jewish and even Muslim cultures. People came to Venice because it was a safe port in an unruly world, just like Singapore today.

Singapore can take advantage of all its hard work and sacrifices to create a great modern society. But it’s got to start talking about people and how they react and connect with one another.

What would you like Singaporeans to understand?

That a culture can be created only from the bottom, not the top… Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I wonder if people would want to see what would really happen if cultural expression was actually able to take place.


Metropolitan musings

FOR a man who has devoted his life to studying cities, it is ironic that Mr Joel Kotkin is now convinced that suburbs will be the nerve centres of American life. Here he is on:

Why the future is in suburbia
‘Suburbs are the nurseries of nations.’

Why culture cannot be created artificially
‘The problem is that when people hold up as an ideal somebody else, they don’t realise that the real ideal is in their own families and cultures. You build that from the inside out, not from the outside in.’

Singapore’s success
‘If you’re going to find the sweet spot in world economics, it would certainly be Singapore.’

Why big government does not equal big culture
‘The more you have bureaucrats determining what should influence your culture, the more stultified the culture becomes.’

Banking on the arts to make Singapore more culturally vibrant
‘It’s just nonsense. You’re never going to compete with the leisure classes of London, Paris, New York or Los Angeles.’

The supposed rise of a creative class of global talent
‘Engineers are not philistines but they’re still engineers! Not that they don’t enjoy a good meal and, occasionally, they might actually go to a farmers’ market, but they’re not defined by these things.’

What he dislikes about the notion of a creative class
‘If you read (creative class proponent) Richard Florida, the words ‘children’ and ‘family’ don’t exist.’

What he wants to experience in Singapore
‘The hawkers are the biggest thing by far! My wife’s family is from (food-happy) France so she asked: ‘What are you going to eat while you’re there?”