We live in turbulent times with the ascendency of the East our most direct challenge. But reports of the death of the West have been greatly exaggerated
In a speech in 1966, Robert Kennedy, heir presumptive for the US presidential crown, referred to a Chinese curse: “May he live in interesting times”. Since then, the phrase has been much used but it has perhaps never been more pertinent than today.
We undoubtedly live in interesting times. The collapse of the Soviet Empire and its satellite states in 1989 was followed by two decades of unprecedented economic growth.
The United States emerged as the world’s hyper power, globalisation became the zeitgeist and we were all going to be rich. Then, in a few short weeks towards the end of 2008, the party was over.
While the developed West scrambled to save its collapsing banks, the emerging nations of the East continued to forge ahead. China is now second only to the US in the premier league of global economic power.
The speed and scale of change is quite breathtaking. By 2030, 400 million people (significantly more than the entire population of the US) are expected to move from China’s villages to its cities, driving the nation’s economic growth still further.
Try and imagine the scale - only two UK cities have populations over one million, and in the US there are just 10. China already has 43, and by 2030 McKinsey predicts the number will have risen to a staggering 221. China now tops the global construction table, overtaking the US for the first time, spending more than $1,000bn on new building projects in 2010.
Although India’s urbanisation is not quite as rapid, the proportion of the population living in the country’s cities is expected to increase from 30% to 40% by 2030. We are witnessing the largest mass urbanisation in history.
As China and India (and increasingly Brazil) speed ahead, what will be the impact on the West? The New World giants are certainly not going to be content forever to see their engines of growth driven by cheap labour and low-value bulk manufacturing. Just as Japan rose from the ashes after the end of the Second World War to produce ever more sophisticated goods and services to fuel her growth, surely the BRICs (with Russia completing the quartet) will follow?
We see rumblings of relocation already, with HSBC frequently cited as an example of a major institution that could move its headquarters operation from West to East.
My crystal ball tells me, however, that the Western world is not quite dead and buried yet. Despite the many uncertainties - as I write, the Middle Eastern and North African revolutions continue apace, with the potential impact on the West’s oil supply hard to predict - the Western model remains robust. America is still the world’s economic giant with an economy well over three times the size of China’s, and a military capacity that other nations can only dream of.
Then, of course, there is democracy - how ironic that the Western-supported puppet regimes of the Middle East, with their history of oppression, are being toppled by mass movements for Western values. It is easy for those of us lucky enough to live in democracies to forget that freedom is very precious indeed. Surely China will not be able to maintain the oxymoron of Western values and suppression forever?
In short, the West remains a good place to be, and an aspiration for many. Western expertise will remain in high demand, particularly as those nations that have polluted their way to growth come to recognise how flawed and short-sighted that vision is. Green buildings and sustainable models of living will gather pace in the East as they have in the West. Perhaps one day, the bicycle may even flourish again in Beijing as it has in London.
So, interesting times indeed. Challenging, certainly. But the changes we face offer a golden opportunity to build, and change the way we build.
Richard Kauntze is chief executive of the British Council for Offices (BCO). He will chair the plenary session, The New World Order, at the BCO’s Annual Conference in Geneva, 11-13 May.