The Rise of the City-State

Modern city shifting roles and national policy to “smart up”

By: Jaron Serven, Staff Writer

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

Sociologist Saskia Sassen, writing in 2006 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” (Source: Sassen, p. 477).

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…” (Sassen, p. 477).

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 (p. 477).

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 (Source: Smart cities).

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 (Source: IBM City Leaders).

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 (Source: IBM City Leaders).  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 (Source: Puga, p. 1)

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, traffic congestion, etc.–that would in turn create an economic downturn (Zheng, p. 1).

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 (Economic Benefits and Drawbacks).

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.

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