Pivot Projects
Published in

Pivot Projects

The New Cities

If we still have cities in 2100, they might look like this…

Downtown Toronto, © 2006 by Colin Harrison

In the years following the Great Pandemic of 2020–2025, the re-emergence of the medieval walled city as a model for post-pandemic settlements surprised no one. Since the onset of the Fourth Wave in late 2021, most large towns and cities around the world had established barriers to exclude the outside world and, following the official declaration that the pandemic was (provisionally) over in September 2025, their citizens saw no particular reason to dismantle them. These choices were celebrated by many separatist and survivalist politicians, although they would have preferred battlements and drawbridges. In any case, apart from traffic control posts on the minor highways into cities, these “walls” were virtual, thanks to new technology for tracking the movements of people.

But the transformation of many developed and developing countries from centralized forms of governance to highly distributed federations did take many by surprise. During the First and Second Waves of the pandemic, it became clear that local governments were far more effective at protecting their citizens than distant, politicised capitals. During the Third Wave, despairing central governments increasingly threw up their hands and abandoned dealing with the pandemic to cities. This entailed a significant devolution of power from the central government to municipalities. Such an evolution had been predicted in the early 2000s by, for example, Edward Glaiser, who saw the economic power of cities eventually surpassing the political power of central governments.

In this model, the “New Cities” assumed many of the responsibilities of central government, including the collection of all taxes, leaving central government responsible mainly for foreign relations, national infrastructure, and national health. Taxes were collected by cities and some fraction was forwarded to the central government.

Unlike the distant politicians of central governments, the officials and staffs of local governments of the New Cities had stared into the reality of the Grand Pandemic and seen behind it the threats of Climate Change. They resolved to do their part to assuage these. Within the cities, over which they now had complete control and responsibility, they seized the moment to adopt changes that, prior to 2020, would have seemed radical, indeed revolutionary.

The most surprising of these was the introduction of local currencies. Local currencies, a form of money that is controlled and backed by a city or a region, have existed since Adam was a boy. But capitalism had eroded their presence until they were little used except in country markets. New technologies, such as bitcoins and blockchains offered new opportunities, from which local currencies, often called “smart money” emerged.

Various approaches to “smart money” developed along the following lines: Consider a currency exchanged by blockchain transactions of the equivalent of UKP 1,000 “notes”. And suppose that the note could discover its sequence of owners, the “green” credentials of each owner, and how long each had owned it. It could work out whether the intent of its previous owner, in the transaction that brought it to its present owner, was positive or negative with respect to, say, the UN Sustainable Development Goals of the early century. If this were found to be negative, it could then decide to depreciate its value by, say 1% per month during the time it is held, unless the succeeding transaction were positive. This could continue over multiple transactions until, eventually, its face value is restored. The net effect is a form of finance that biases the flow of money into “good” directions — as decided by the local citizens — at the discretion of the holder simply by changing the imposed depreciation.

Smart money gave a city, and sometimes a region, control over its own economy, provided there were financial experts and tools available for the job. In some cases, neighbouring cities collaborated to support a common local currency. While cities and regions still had certain dependencies on central government, which administered a national currency that was usually freely exchangeable with local currencies, local currencies could include such intelligence that encouraged investment in transactions that favoured, for example, Sustainability, Resilience, and Equality.

A key result of these local currencies was that they tended to retain wealth in the host city, instead of allowing it to be captured by mega-corporations. It was by this means that cities were able to invest 10–20% of their revenue in projects that had direct and immediate benefit on their cities and that, over a few decades, enabled each city in turn to achieve NetZero GHG emissions with a healthy local economy.

A large part of this transformation emerged from the transition from an Industrial/Retail Economy to a Wholesale/Creative Economy. As a result of the virtual wall around a city, industrial manufacturing was effectively confined outside the city walls, where it was primarily executed by automation and robots. During and after the Great Pandemic, the operators of the shopping malls and big box retailers on the cities’ periphery, quickly withdrew up the value chain to maintain their profitability, leaving behind a ring of transit points to which manufacturers, operating massive-scale, digital distribution platforms, would deliver in bulk, still, regrettably, using long-haul trucking. Goods were then distributed within the city using shared robotic delivery vehicles.

Though it was not widely recognised, air pollution had killed more people in cities every year than the COVID-19 virus. The elimination of heavy goods traffic from the centres of the New Cities greatly reduced this impact and also removed the need for broad highways. As city-centres were re-developed to new models of living and working, the old highways were transformed into recreational areas and urban farms. Increasingly, residents were able to walk from their homes, where many of them also worked, to shopping, sports, recreation, and social facilities within fifteen minutes. The lack of pollution and the increased exercise added to improving public health.

While initially the Great Pandemic had triggered the decline of city centres, the unemployment resulting from the separation of workers from their former jobs in manufacturing and commerce engendered the re-birth of city centres. Entrepreneurs established large numbers of small-scale retail and artisanal businesses. These served to express the values held by the local community and gave a renewed sense of identity. This rebirth was also initially encouraged by the extreme decline in the rental costs of Central Business District buildings as corporations broadly adopted work-at-home policies. The upper floors of such properties were converted into residences and the ground floors into shopping and entertainment districts, financed by local citizens’ investment through their smart currencies.

An overall effect of these transformations was that the city’s citizens could focus their local economy and its long-term investments on the values that were important to them, but which, under centralized government and finance, were often lost in the noise of national politics. A related effect was the transformation of K-12 education to imbue children and students with these values, not least to support the local economy, but also to generate “people-like-us” — a native culture — rather than human robots designed to fit into national or global industries. A particular emphasis was on stimulating and fostering all forms of curiosity and creativity so that new value could be created locally by artisans rather than by large-scale enterprises, again with the outcome of capturing such value locally.

Notwithstanding the virtual isolation of such cities, regional and international travel was still possible, though with significantly more difficulty than prior to the Great Pandemic. The key mechanism was the “Transit Bubble” in which residents of a disease-free city could travel to another disease-free city, provided they maintained isolation during the journey. Regrettably this favoured personal or single passenger shared vehicles over trains or buses and required the development of new, single-passenger conveyances and new business models. Airlines reversed their long-standing policies of progressively reducing the sizes of passenger’s seats and found new business models that matched the emergence of aeroplanes powered by electric batteries or hydrogen. The reduction of dependencies on international supply chains reduced the strategic importance of shipping docks and thus their port cities were finally able to enforce the elimination of “bunker oil” as a primary fuel in commercial shipping.

Given the hugely positive outcomes, briefly summarised above, that resulted from the disruption due to the Great Pandemic, it is saddening to conclude with the significant negative outcomes. This is not to say that these positive outcomes were lost. They were not and, through these and other mechanisms, the world reached mid-century with a global average temperature rise of only 3.0 C, far less than was feared circa 2030. But the transformations described above lead, eventually, to negative outcomes.

As Darwin concluded in his study of evolution, isolated populations tend to diverge (genetically). Notwithstanding the abundance of virtual experiences through the world, the Great Isolation — the self-isolation of cities and the economic and political powers with which they had been invested — lead them within twenty years to turn strongly inwards, disregarding their roles in regional, national, and international societies, focusing ever more intensely on their local values and the formation of “people-like-us”, and pulling back from regional and national collaboration with their neighbours. Great fears and hatreds of “Outsiders” erupted. Migration, which was driven by climate change, declined strongly, becoming encumbered with regulations ostensibly concerned with protecting the safety of citizens. While within cities financial equality had been greatly improved, this isolation lead to growing divergences among cities. The sense of national identity also declined, opening the doors once again for populist politicians to amass and enflame segments of the population with fear and hatred of their neighbours.

This decline halted abruptly during 2050–2060 as the overwhelming impacts of “only” a 3.0 C rise in the average global temperature came home to roost. After two or three generations, the depredations of the Great Pandemic had faded from people’s minds to be supplanted by those of the Great Isolation. These were were in turn supplanted by the violent consequences of Climate Change against which it was too late to prevail.

But that, dear friends, is a story for another evening.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Colin Harrison

Dr. Harrison is an IBM Distinguished Engineer Emeritus and a co-founder of the Pivot Projects.