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The rise of the city-state

Cities used to be the cultural epicentres of their respective countries. Over the past few decades, the Digital Age and its side effect, globalization, has pushed cities into a different type of public sphere.

Sociologist Saskia Sassen, writing  about the future of studying the modern city in sociology, remarks that the Digital Age shapes major cities into “nodes, where a variety of economic, political and subjective processes...” operate on a global scale. This shifts the role of the modern city away from the usual tropes of a regional, even national, center of identity and work, and into that of the global, “...engaging [the world] directly.” 

This is a keen observation about how our culture is changing around our continued adaptation--some would say, dependence upon—digital technology. This perspective is changing the way we look at cities, and how we may utilize them as a tool for our globalized future.

Most important is Sassen’s implication that cities operate on a more powerful scale than other areas of a respective country, “bypassing the national,” as she calls it.

While this has, in a way, always been true, what is different now is that the common city is in direct conversation with the rest of the world due to globalization: cities are becoming as powerful as the nations they occupy. This increase in influence and power may give rise to different social opportunities, which would require bold steps and experimentation to capitalize upon.

The Creation of Smart Cities

One step that many cities could be taking to better the effects of globalization is integrating technology into the socio-political infrastructure, creating a smart city. There are many factors that contribute to what a smart city could be, but generally speaking, the smart city is one that utilizes technology to its advantage, along with maintaining a socially agreed-upon intelligence within certain city characteristics--including smart living, smart economy, smart people and smart governance, among others.

Now, what “smart” living, people, economy and governance could mean can vary depending upon what city we may be speaking of, and “smartness” can range from awareness of the use of resources, to using technology to increase efficiency of public works projects.

IBM, one of our leading technological companies, sees the potential opportunity in being the leader of the smart city movement, outlining on their site the different attributes of what a smart city could be.

Further, IBM has published an open letter to the mayors of the world, giving examples of three city leaders making data-based decisions—as opposed to the old ways of policy-based legislation—which better incorporate the average citizen into the local community process, and increases the efficiency of those processes.

For example, a citizen can notice a broken streetlamp, send a picture from their smartphone to the city’s data receiver, which would then, based upon the data, generate a repair order. 

The implications of such a system, extrapolated to all cities and throughout the socio-economic structure, are staggering. Citizens, living so long with all the information at hand but powerless to utilize the knowledge, would finally be able to help make decisions about their everyday lives.

This can be accomplished without damaging the necessary division between politicians and average citizens--a division made necessary to avoid a chaotic, citizen-run political-state. Politicians would still have control over legislative responsibilities, while the citizens would gain certain responsibilities in their living situations and public works projects.

It would require the average citizen to participate, and to possibly allow water-tracking—even structure-tracking—technology into their everyday lives. But the benefits of such a situation could outweigh the negative implications of greater government control—and besides, they’re already listening to everything we say and do anyway.  

Special Consideration

The larger concern with smarter cities is what to do going forward, in terms of national policy. Should the new smarter, globalized cities receive special treatment from their respective governments? After all, according to IBM, over the world’s population lives in cities; should those citizens be given their own provincial power?

The questions are complicated, and bring even more complicated answers. Technically, the citizen would be given greater power in their decisions with the integration of the smart city movement, and policy-makers would be hesitant to create a new order out of a city that already runs on state law (plus, just imagine: the State of Manhattan. A trifle odd).

Besides, the biggest economic advantage for cities almost makes tax-breaks a moot point: economic agglomeration.

Agglomeration is an economic phenomenon that traces the rise in productivity in firms and workers within cities. It is generally agreed upon that innate advantages of cities—larger market, sharing of suppliers between businesses, a higher transmission of local ideas—lead to agglomeration, or a higher rate of business in urban areas. 

If smart cities were to be given the larger economic power of a state, there could be a greater influx of people into the area, which may actually lead to diseconomies of agglomeration: put simply, overpopulation of a city can lead to negative social consequences, such as pollution and traffic congestion, that would in turn create an economic downturn.

This is why cities never grow too large or overcrowded—why thousands of people take the train into New York City everyday to work. If cities were to be given the same status as a state or providence, people might be more inclined to live there, which may ultimately have a negative effect on the economy.

This is speculation, of course: agglomeration is the title of a phenomenon, not a concrete theory of economics, and, to take a chaotic theoretical perspective, the deterministic nature of cities does not necessarily make them a predictable entity.

The initial iteration of the smart city will expand, unpredictably, as our older cities have expanded into agglomeration and sustainability--a sustainability that has been proven in recent years by pollution and poor economic growth to be, in fact, unsustainable.

Put simply, too much change would produce wildly unpredictable variations of the city at different iterations.  When facing such an uncertain future for cities, we should proceed with cautious, yet bold, experimentation.

Which begs the question: how, exactly, do we do that? The answer could be found in a grand social experiment going on right now: the charter city.

Charter Cities

Charter cities are another fascinating aspect of the globalization of cities in our age, another indication of how cities are flexing larger power over socio-economic variables.

Charter cities, as a concept, are being pioneered by Professor Paul Romer, the famous economist and activist previously of Stanford University, now teaching economics at New York University.

The basic idea is that a third-party nation invests in an unused strip of land within a struggling, usually third-world, nation, and creates what are hopefully prosperous economic and social conditions.  Locals are allowed to come and go as they please. 

There is a “commitment to choice” that averts coercion into participation: under Romer’s direction, the charter city is the seed, and the people need to cultivate it.

What they cultivate is, hopefully, a better local economy.  This good economy would, in theory, spur further change throughout the rest of the struggling, developing nation.  The host nation would also benefit, receiving returns on its investment, thereby creating an upturn in the overall global economy.

This is something that Honduras had been working on for over a year, although it seems that this effort has collapsed.  Romer, and his partner Brandon Fuller, proposed in April 2012 that Canada “partner with other countries to help Honduras... not with traditional aid or charity, but with the institutional know-how that support economic prosperity and the rule of law.” 

There is, obviously, substantial political risk of such an operation--such as problematic infrastructure investing and future rule-of-law dealings between potential investors--but Romer and Fuller attribute these risks as aspects of “weak governance”, and that better, more equal rules for charter cities are needed if they are to thrive.

This is the principle reason why the Honduras project failed: “Strong independent oversight of the project was never created.” Or in other words, no one wanted to take the political risk and make the proper arrangements.

“I don’t want to participate in this again,” Romer recently said, “unless there is a stronger governing presence and a national government with some accountability.” In essence, what Romer is calling for is more than a private investment—not a corporate city—but a socio-economic investment, a revamp on both the economic and governing scale.

So this does not mean that the overall concept of charter cities, as Romer sees it, is dysfunctional. What the Honduras project shows us is that true goodwill on the part of our governments will go a long way toward possibly achieving economic prosperity.

But more than that, what Honduras ultimately proves is that ambitious socio-political experimentation—like Romer’s concept of charter cities—is necessary to pull us out of our economic recession. The ways of old—the private, corporate investment, so prone to corruptibility—cannot work.

So, Honduras is not a failure by any means; it’s just the first iteration of another deterministic-yet-unpredictable system.  It stands as proof that goodwill is necessary to pull us out of the mess we are all in.



With the introduction of another variable--a positive, well-meaning governance--the new iteration of charter cities, wherever they may be, could produce better results.  We are, after all, speaking of communities here; both smart cities, and their experimental doppelgangers, the charter cities, require that variable of positive communal influence, an awareness of one another that, in the Digital Age, may just be easier to come by.

After all, if we can integrate technology into the infrastructure of our cities, if we can create what amount to small utopias in the middle of third-world disparity, why should it be so hard to believe in the power of mankind’s hopeful goodwill?  Stranger things have happened...  

Forecasted start year: 
2014 to 2030
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