Cities to rise above Nations as the building block of innovation
More than half of humanity now lives in cities, a proportion that is expected to rise to three-quarters within the next 30 years. Squeezed between the critical mass of cities and the realities of the global economy, the traditional power of Nation-States is waning. Nationalists and protectionists of all kinds may not like it, but there is no way back. Nations are becoming ineffective at driving change, as politicians on any national stage are increasingly perceived as out-of-touch and their now structural inability to mobilize capital makes them irrelevant. Conversely, cities are rapidly appearing as the right perimeter to implement change. This is why this year’s MIT Europe conference “a blueprint to the future” is so heavily focused on urbanism.
The challenges of urbanism are becoming so complex that they require a systemic, multi-disciplinary approach to innovation. But to have a chance of getting into the implementation phase, as opposed to stalling after the policy-design or legislative phase, we need to find a perimeter that is both as small as possible and ecosystem-encompassing. It is in the nature of cities to concentrate within their “walls” the whole range of services that people need to live and thrive. This is how they first emerged, driven by the need of people of different trades and talents to cluster in a place where they could more easily fulfil all their needs by trading their talents. In the aftermath of the industrial revolutions though, pollution and the need for space drove manufacturing out of the cities, but we see that trend being reversed today: manufacturing is returning to the cities, not only thanks to game-changing process innovations such as 3D printing, but also driven by the need to access a city-dwelling educated workforce. Even agriculture is timidly but visibly finding its way back into cities. I do not pretend for a second that a city could survive on its own without exchanging with other ecosystems in the rest of the world, but I contend that a city can be regarded as the smallest relevant social and economic ecosystem. Being an ecosystem it enables change to be designed in a systemic way; being the smallest it enables change to be implemented more rapidly and effectively.
Take a simple example: electric mobility. While every single nation is struggling with the infrastructure issue (and will be struggling with it for a long time), cities like Paris have already implemented electric car-sharing schemes which are now diffusing in other cities such as Minneapolis.
Last but not least, change cannot happen without the people. City-based power recreates a democracy of proximity that offers a chance to politicians to engage citizens, and to any willing citizen to engage in a meaningful way in projects that make more of an impact than a drop in the national ocean. As I write these lines, I cannot help noticing that the word “citizen”, crafted in the ancient world of Greek city-states, has survived the age of nation-states that is now coming to an end.
Picture source: Information Strategy