The Return of the City-State in 2050 — This time with significant upgrades

Article by: Sharon Chang
The Return of the City-State in 2050 — This time with significant upgrades

‘Dear 2015…’ begins the Meeting Of The Minds prompt. ‘Write a letter from 2050. In the context of a rapidly urbanizing world, with two-thirds of the world’s population expected to live in cities, tell us what it’s like in the future. Give us advice.’


Futurecasting can read like a kid’s Christmas list: Dear Santa, we want affordable space travel! Hydro! Solar! More powerful batteries! Smaller processors! Please bring whole new kinds of learning, and squash down the chimney to drop in radically different jobs. Also, in the stocking, don’t forget social equity and human genome mapping! We want our ‘happily ever after…’


We imagine a wonderful future filled with bold ideas and great inventions. Then, ironically, we put those bold ideas and great inventions right back into the boxes we see today — categories inside the context of outdated systems that need fundamental change.


Our political, educational, and industrial systems to date have been designed to operate with constraint rather than abundance. These systems encourage and reward behaviors defined by a zero-sum attitude. Even the most brilliant innovations have been limited within the mindset of arbitrary, war-born lines on centuries-old maps. For some reason, they’re untouchable. We’d never dare to think — let alone color — outside the lines.

Look at the history of democracy and government structure. Then look around us today. Keen observers will see two things: first, the modern state system is relatively new. And second, it’s not very sustainable. Compare our 20th century political system to the thousands of ancient city-states that sprang into existence between 750 and 500 B.C., in which centralized power was eschewed in favor of truly remarkable diversity. These city-states experimented with everything from monarchies to communism — regardless of politics, engaged citizens made unparalleled advances in all fields of human activity, with the exception of industry and technology.

For obvious reasons of profit and control, imperial powers — later on, the modern state system — emerged on the world stage, replacing the city-state’s intellectually rich but politically unreliable construct.

The question of today: Are these reasons still valid?

When we put modern industry and technology into a new design of city-state, we cross-pollinate two extremely powerful concepts: exponential growth and diversity. We forge a path of least resistance to true abundance.

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.


The Return of the City-State in 2050 — This time with significant upgrades 2

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.

It’s from this baseline that the ‘we’ of 2050 write the letter to the ‘we’ of today:

Dear 2015

You are right on the brink. 2015 marked the beginning of what we now call the Creative Revolution. It took place in cities around the globe and catalyzed a brand new political consciousness. Imagine that 2050 will be something you can’t imagine: everything will open up in unexpected ways.

In the coming decades, exponential advancement in technology will create true abundance. Not only will you be able to make new things with astonishing speed and quality, but you’ll also develop ways to conserve and regenerate natural resources.

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.

By 2050, the vast majority of sovereign powers will have shifted to cities. For the first time in human history, these newly minted city-states form an intricate global network that favors cooperation over competition. We still grapple with the same issues you face in your time — we have not eradicated poverty and disease, and plenty of people are unhappy about one thing or another. But because we are capable of contextualizing problems within the sensible confines of cities, we can prototype and perfect solutions more swiftly. Our willingness and ability to share learning across city-states give us a foundation to act on global issues. In a way, we treat our city-states like the apps of your days: we constantly debug, optimize, and upgrade to improve our play in the larger eco-system. Competition is fertilizer to collective progress.

Characteristics of 21st century city-states

  1. City-states are porous, with open boundaries and multiple, unlimited citizen allegiance.
  2. City-states have overlapping physical territories, with certain territories jointly governed for easy resource-sharing and management.
  3. City-states have license to take swift action on global issues as intelligent knowledge exchange empowers objective and collaborative decision-making.
  4. City-states regulate their own growth by understanding their optimal capacity. Military power has diminishing value as security and expansion become much less relevant.
  5. City-states take an agile approach to optimize efficiency while building value-based identity through diversity. Performance is much more important than power.
  6. City-states practice open governance and shift between many different political ideologies to accommodate changing needs.
  7. City-states celebrate humanity and creativity and are deeply entrepreneurial.

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.

See you sooner than you think, 2050


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