A defining characteristic of the human species is our ability to form large, complex societies. By living together, we can accomplish more. This principle has led to the development of different social and political structures in societies across the world. As our societies evolve over time, we are required to adopt different organising principles that best reflect our cultural inclinations and allow us to pursue our collective ambitions.
Throughout history, we have transitioned from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian society, an industrial society, and finally a post-industrial society, each with different governance requirements than the last. We have seen people organised around bands, tribes and chiefdoms, city-states, empires, and nation states. Where do we go from here?
Several trends, such as globalisation, point towards the continuing development of supranational political systems. The European Union, the African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the United Nations are all examples of this. In this framework of international cooperation it is entirely possible that nation states remain strong, dominant actors, especially when it comes to the matters of geopolitics and the global competition for natural resources. Yet, in contrast to this, we also see the signs of a shift back to more local forms of governance. The world is urbanising rapidly and cities are more politically and economically important than ever. This could lead to the rise of the modern city-state – a wildcard scenario of low-probability, but high impact.
According to political theorist Benjamin Barber, cities are not only the oldest of institutions; they are also the most enduring. Across all regions we are seeing the development of supercities, megacorridors, and megaregions – large networks of metropolitan regions that have strong economic linkages and that share environmental systems, infrastructure and settlement and land-use patterns.
For the first time in history, more than half of the global population lives in an urban area, sitting today at 54 percent, according to the UN World Urbanization Prospects report. Cities will continue to grow over the next few decades, creating a profound shift in our societies. In 1950, more than two thirds of people worldwide lived in rural settlements and less than one third in urban areas. It will take just a century for the situation to be reversed: by 2050, the global urban population will reach 66 percent. At the same time, cities are emerging as the economic engine of a global society. Despite occupying only 3 percent of the Earth’s land, cities generate more than 80 percent of the global GDP. Likewise, according to the World Bank, 72 percent of the biggest cities globally experience faster economic growth then their host nation state.
Sociologist at Washington University Daniel Chirot writes in his book, How Societies Change, that as science and technology advance more or less continuously, social and institutional change lags consistently behind. Already today, we recognise that our current social structures and political processes are having a hard time tackling what many agree are among our most pressing issues: terrorism, climate change, ageing populations, income inequality, poverty and crime. Is the answer to challenges like these a society organised around city governments rather than national bodies?
Cities are where things get done. This is becoming more and more obvious as the current governance structure is lagging behind in effectively addressing the major challenges of this generation and the next. Cities are also arguably more democratic and less prone to the political stagnation that often hampers national governments. City governance tends not to be weighed down by ideology and political dogma, so while big governments are reluctant to find consensus on issues such as climate change, cities are moving forward.
One example illustrating the rising power of cities was the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. The meeting was praised not only due to a climate agreement being adopted, but also the inclusion of city-level leadership in the process, in which more than 400 mayors came together for the Climate Summit for Local Leaders. The mayors were purposeful, and the standards set by C40 members – a forum for cities to collaborate and take action on climate change – in clean-energy buildings, waste management, and sustainable transport systems – substantially exceed existing standards set by inter-governmental negotiation. If mayors around the world manage to translate these new standards into action and firmer commitments to combatting pollution and emissions, it could mean that the initiative in the global effort to combat climate change will see a permanent shift from the national to the urban level.
In fact, there are many indications that cities are better positioned than their national counterparts to address the reduction of CO2 emissions, as urban populations consume close to 80 percent of the world’s energy and account for approximately 80 percent of global greenhouse gas production, according to the ARCADIS Sustainable Cities Index.
In a similar vein, there are others who suggest that it will be energy production which will lead to a political and economic power shift from the national to the municipal level. According to global environmental expert Joe Browder, it is more economical for most major metropolitan regions to invest within and near their own urban economies in the distributed generation of electricity from multiple and often small-scale resources and technology systems, rather than continuing to depend on and pay for the old model of importing electricity from very large, remote generating plants. In this sense, cities will become more self-sustaining and independent.
Likewise, the idea of self-sufficiency and the growing independence of urban regions has been strengthened since the recession. Amid widespread austerity measures, there have been changes in the financing of municipal projects. In order to modernise, cities have historically relied upon state and federal grants, but today cities themselves are acting as investors. They have begun forming strategic partnerships and offering seed capital to tech firms in order to develop products and services that will be consumed predominantly by similarly-sized cities. Scholars Jennifer Bradley and Bruce Katz point out in their book Metropolitan Revolution that since the slowdown of federal funding during the Great Recession, American cities and metro areas have begun to self-finance housing, infrastructure, education, and technological development to a degree unseen since the 1960s.
The emergence of city-states will have countless implications for innovation, culture, politics, society and life in general. Governance as we know it today may be very different. As Benjamin Barber writes in his book, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, a planet ruled by cities represents a new paradigm of global governance characterised by horizontalism rather than hierarchy, and of pragmatic interdependence rather than outworn ideologies of national independence.
Such a power shift would lead to the decline of nation states as the central decision-making apparatus in most political arenas and a reduction in the importance of national institutions. Nation states may not totally disappear; their function, rather, could be transformed. They may have a role in terms of cultural unity and cooperation across cities, but they could be much less significant in regards to important policy decisions. Additionally, there will likely be improvements in placemaking and place-branding. With nation states no longer representing the default governing body in the minds of populations, nationalism may start to disappear. Individuals will start to look for new identity markers, likely to be rooted in their local communities.
Supranational actors will also be forced to adapt; the United Nations, for example, will likely be supplanted by one or many of the existing global mayoral councils or city forums, which when brought together could make up the ‘United Cities’. Here, it will be local, instead of national leaders that gather together as the key authorities and experts to look for solutions to the biggest of humanity’s problems. The possibility of more central planning in the management of cities might be a more effective way of reaching such solutions.
As our experience shows, successful sovereign cities have historically helped to attract population and wealth. Emerging city-states could fill the same role today, while also reviving a systemic innovation culture in places where cities are in competition for wealth creation, leading to a new era of progress and breakthrough.
However, we also know that small political entities like city-states have been historically vulnerable, as they lack the resources to defend themselves against incursions by larger states. It is interesting to question how city-states will fare in modern times – an era characterised largely by liberal democratic values, relative political stability, and cooperation. Will a 21st-century global system of city-states be enough to manage the commons equally or will it lead to increased conflict, especially when faced with a growing global population?
It is difficult to say, but what is clear by any measure today is that we are encountering broken nations and rising cities across the world. In one direction or another, our governance and social systems will come to be redefined. So while the re-emergence of city-states as the dominant framework for socio-political organisation is a wildcard scenario currently confined to the realm of speculation, existing structures will require a transformation in order to optimise our human potential and create a platform for sustainable, resilient societies.
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