The return of the city-state in 2050
published on 5/11/2015
In line with earlier posts on Social City, Sharon Chang argues that the emergence of city-states would give rise to a more enlightened view on identity.
Cities are strangely unique organizational units. Over time, a city organically shifts its boundaries to reflect its people, not the other way around. Cities are about choices. Choices lead to possibilities. Think of San Francisco and New York as compared to cities in flyover states — two dramatically different worlds contained within one country. The same gap doesn’t exist between Queens and Brooklyn because we opt-in to city identities and are born with our nationality. Even with socio-economic differences, New Yorkers still have a shared base of New Yorker-ness. As with most people in this city, I don’t identify first as American (my nationality), Chinese (my ethnicity), or even Chinese-American (my unique mix). I’m first and foremost a New Yorker. My identity defies conventional categories of race, gender, and birthright — all the things I cannot control. In choosing the city that became my city, I declared that I like what I see and am inspired to add to it.
Another interesting observation: it’s much easier to self-identify with multiple cities than countries.
Choice-driven diversity comes from self-selection rather than from forced birthright. National boundaries, with their conceptual and practical lack of fluidity, restrict our freedom of choice. When we free ourselves from the obligation to a singular and dominant identity that we can’t control, new value-based connections and allegiances begin to flourish. Cities provide the optimal construct for this type of human organization, and should be the core of 21st century political architecture.
The future is all about holistic progress. You’ll no longer need to categorize innovation as you live through the Creative Revolution. Human progress will accelerate as industrial boundaries melt away. You will be empowered to move from fear to caring — a shift in mindset that will celebrate openness and diversity instead of protectiveness and unification. Within these optimal conditions, a new form of city-state will emerge.
At the center of this rapidly evolving movement is a more enlightened view on identity. In 2050, gender, race, and nationality will no longer define who you are. Individuals will choose their community by passion and value, and willingly contribute to collective well-being for a better, more prosperous social and natural environment.
Cities provide the perfect setup to breed these multi-faceted identity networks. Geoffrey West, theoretical physicist of your time, discovered the magic of cities long before we recognized the opportunity imperative to city-state formation. He turned a study of the cosmology of elementary particles into a quantitative understanding of the structure and dynamics of cities. He called it scaling phenomena, and used it to examine growth, innovation, wealth creation, and long-term sustainability. West said:
“The thing that is amazing about cities is that as they grow, their dimensionality increases. The space of opportunity, functions, and jobs continually opens up.”
There’s something else that West noted as even more important as you enter this phase of exponential advancement: the way that cities support ‘crazy’ elements — unexpected people and ideas.
“If you walk down Fifth Avenue, you see crazy people,” he said. “Cities are tolerant of extraordinary diversity. If you go to General Motors or American Airlines or Goldman Sachs, you don’t see crazy people. Crazy people are fired. Mavericks are fired.”
When bureaucracy owns creativity, meaningful growth gets stifled. Furthermore, when you organize human activities at a national level, you end up with a different problem: an immobile, hereditary loyalty that creates conflict.
Our capacity to overcome these limitations is a big part of West’s predictive framework. The ideal city contributes to a thriving global community, one that is both inherently intelligent and infinitely more sustainable.
If the energy that emanates from nature is quiet and divine, urban energy is a celebration of human creation. It can be raucous, dizzying, and extremely beautiful. Cities gather energy. Nations, as defensive territorial claims, do not. During the past 30 years, we have learned to harness urban energy harmoniously. Like magnetic forces, cities inevitably galvanized the innovations we all witnessed in the first half of the 21st century. Our proudest moment: when we recognized the pattern and engineered a new political paradigm to take advantage. It only happened because our intention for change transcended our fear of uncertainty.
In 2050, the city-state will be a brand new animal. You will have managed to think outside the old lines. You will have rejected the boundaries and limitations of our communities. Cities will not exist as extensions of your current trajectory, but as something shockingly delightful.
The city-state is the best base unit to establish a new ideology from which all other categories of change spring. You can stop asking questions about what will happen to energy, infrastructure, food, water, transportation, climate change, pollution, and population growth. You can stop worrying about one education system replacing another, or whether or not the suburbs will play nice with the urban core. You will learn, invent, and create within a radically different belief system — one with open city-states as autonomous containers for change. 2050 will be beyond your wildest imagination, grounded in the reality of an ancient promise: the timeless metropolis.
Sharon Chang is a Partner at THNK and Founder + Partner at yoxi. This post is an abridged version of the blog post "The Return of the City-State In 2050 - This Time With Significant Upgrades" which originally appeared on thnk.org.
Top image: New York City graffiti by Timothy Neesam
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