Free Cities of the Future
The other day I read a question in the discord for the build_ DAO. Namely, what would the ideal city look like?
To answer this question I want to start with a few constraints. Namely, I want to describe what a city would look like if it were inhabited by what I am going to call sovereign individuals (or sovereign citizens, when they are members of a Free City). So first, I am going to provide a definition of what I mean by this term:
A sovereign individual is a person who rejects hierarchical structures such as the nation state and the corporation as the dominant forms of social and economic organization.
Democracy and capitalism have transformed the world in interesting and powerful ways, including in many positive ways. But ultimately, any social structure that depends on large scale hierarchical organization is going to end up (or start out) being dominated by rent-seekers.
Large scale structures that manage the ambitions of rent-seekers can do a lot of good. I am not claiming that nation states or corporations are necessarily evil — just that they are dehumanizing. To thrive within them you ultimately have to either become a victim or a sociopath. In either case you become somewhat dehumanized.
Now, I don’t really expect you to agree that hierarchy is dehumanizing, but I just want to make it clear that these are the logical constraints I am working with. So even if you don’t buy that part of it, let’s move on.
Cities have existed for a long time, but cities as many of us understand them are formed in the context of these powerful forces. For example, corporations exist largely in cities, corporations create jobs, and people move to cities to work in these jobs.
So to talk about cities, we really need to talk about jobs. Jobs create cities, and cities create jobs (and change the nature of jobs by enabling specialization and trade). So I would define a free city as follows:
A Free City is a super-Dunbar organization that enables specialization and trade among sovereign citizens.
For sovereign citizens, jobs are a big challenge. How does one get a job if you refuse to work for a corporation (thereby enabling that corporation to structure your economic life)? The vast majority of jobs in capitalist nation states come with hierarchical strings attached. So what would a social entity look like that enables sovereign citizens opportunities to work efficiently without the intermediation of corporate hierarchy? For me, this is the key to understanding free cities of the future.
The first thing to keep in mind about a Free City is that it might not include all of the functions of a modern city as we currently understand them. I assume that hierarchical social organizations will always exist, and that the inhabitants (or laborers) of Free Cities will co-exist with parts of the economy dominated by these hierarchies. It is likely that some parts of the economy will offer better opportunities for independent production than others. For example, building military aircraft might always be a hierarchy-driven industry. But perhaps developing code for web3 will retain possibilities for non-hierarchical production for some time.
This view of Free Cities can be contrasted with that of, say, Murray Bookchin, who felt that the miniaturization of technology might enable future cities to engage in the same forms of production as modern cities (e.g., the production of power, manufacturing, etc). This may be true to some extent (and the extent that it does, I will be in favor of such small scale production). But miniaturization itself has become so complex that small non-hierarchical groups may not be able to compete in the production of such small things. For example, I don’t expect Free Cities to be able to operate semiconductor fabrication plants in the foreseeable future.
So, while Free Cities may enable their citizens to engage in autonomous, specialized production, the cities themselves may be specialized to focus on certain kinds of production that are amenable to production by small teams. One of the reasons that most jobs are provided by corporations these days is that many, many forms of production benefit immensely from economies of scale. But not all of them.
So what kinds of production don’t require immense hierarchies? Two examples come to mind: child care and innovation.
Historically, a large portion of child care was provided in small family groups. These days, a lot of this production has been outsourced to large public schools, but it need not be this way. In fact, the “efficiencies” that come from public schooling come at great cost in terms of the quality and customization of care that is provided. Basically, teachers are not often going to understand children quite as well as their own families. And in fact, the pendulum is already swinging back toward more private education.
So, I believe that small scale cooperative child care will be a major focus of Free Cities. For example, cities could focus on providing families with greater resources to educate their children closer to home without sacrificing as many of the advantages that come with large-scale education institutions (opportunities for academic competitions, sports facilities, etc.).
Innovation is another area where hierarchy doesn’t necessarily lead to increased production. In fact, in many cases the opposite is true. One essay that comes to mind is the explanation of Noam Bardin of what happened to his company when it was acquired by a bigger, more hierarchical company. Basically, it killed the culture and he eventually felt the need to leave.
So a Free City can operate as an incubator of ideas — maybe like a startup incubator with cooperative child care (perhaps with some independent power generation and a bit of local organic farming thrown into the mix).
One paradox inherent in this vision is that child care is, by its nature, quite dependent on locality. Innovation is not (at least not as much). Let me give some examples from my own experience.
My daughter has recently become very involved in learning to ride horses. Horses provide an incredible mix of high-feedback learning and high-stakes responsibility for children. It’s easier to convince my daughter that she needs to shovel manure out her pony’s stall that it is to convince her to pick up laundry from the floor of her bedroom.
But you can’t ride horses online. They require an incredible amount of physical overhead to maintain, and they are hard to move from place to place. So caring for a horse really ties you to a particular location.
On the other hand, my job is conducted almost entirely online. I regularly collaborate with people from across the country, and from around the world. Due to the recent coronavirus epidemic, many have us are now familiar with some of the pros and cons of working remotely. But it is absolutely possible in many professions, especially ones that require largely intellectual labor.
So what do autonomous innovators need from each other? Why would innovators band together rather than trying to network directly with big money financiers that could provide them more opportunities for exit?
Innovation and monetization are very different activities. Innovation typically happens at a small scale, while monetization often needs to occur at a large scale. However, despite their differences, there will always be a strong relationship between them. There is also a kind of middle ground between them that could become the focus of a Free City.
That is, a Free City could evolve as a cooperative organization that provides services that are useful for innovators such as seed investment, reputational growth, co-working space, help in team formation, and a willing army of interested early adopters. Many of these things can (and are) provided by corporations or other hierarchical organizations. But sovereign citizens will seek to minimize their reliance on corporate entities, so the need for cooperative efforts to provide each other with these things will be even greater.
Of course, incubator coops probably can’t solve the problem that jobs in the innovation industry are scarce. But they could have an impact on the margin, and enable people with the capacity for innovation (or really, any activity that can be performed effectively at a small scale) to engage in a lifestyle (i.e., the lifestyle of the sovereign citizen) that is more compatible with their ideals.