Redrawing the globe with the city at its heart

Paul Raven @ 20-08-2010

Very sincere thanks to @polgrim for flagging up this excellent article at ForeignPolicy.com. It’s like a heaped plate of geopolitical and socioeconomic Zeitgeist, full of favourite Futurismic riffs like the decline of the nation-state, the weakening of the “first-world” West, the shift toward urban living and the possibilities – good and bad – of rethinking the way we approach these things.

Be sure to read the whole thing (it’ll probably take you maybe twenty minutes max, and it’s worth every second), but here’s a chunk that made my brain chime like a temple bell:

Accelerating this shift toward new regional centers of gravity are port cities and entrepĆ“ts such as Dubai, the Venices of the 21st century: “free zones” where products are efficiently re-exported without the hassles of government red tape. Dubai’s recent real-estate overreach notwithstanding, emerging city-states along the Persian Gulf are investing at breakneck speed in efficient downtown business districts, offering fast service and tax incentives to relocate. Look for them to use sovereign wealth funds to acquire the latest technology from the West, buy up tracts of agricultural land in Africa to grow their food, and protect their investments through private armies and intelligence services.

Alliances of these agile cities are already forming, reminiscent of that trading and military powerhouse of the late Middle Ages, the Hanseatic League along the Baltic Sea. Already, Hamburg and Dubai have forged a partnership to boost shipping links and life-sciences research, while Abu Dhabi and Singapore have developed into a new commercial axis. No one is waiting for permission from Washington to make deals. New pairings among global cities follow the markets: Witness the new Doha to Sao Paulo direct flight on Qatar Airways or the Buenos Aires to Johannesburg route on South African Airways. When traffic between New York and Dubai dried up due to the financial crisis, Emirates airlines rerouted its sleek Airbus A380 planes to Toronto, whose banking system survived the economic shake-up in better shape.

And another:

Consider how aggressively Chinese cities have now begun to bypass Beijing as they send delegates en masse to conferences and fairs where they can attract foreign investment. By 2025, China is expected to have 15 supercities with an average population of 25 million (Europe will have none). Many will try to emulate Hong Kong, which though once again a Chinese city rather than a British protectorate, still largely defines itself through its differences with the mainland. What if all China’s supercities start acting that way? Or what if other areas of the country begin to demand the same privileges as Dalian, the northeastern tech center that has become among China’s most liberal enclaves? Will Beijing really run China then? Or will we return to a fuzzier modern version of the “Warring States” period of Chinese history, in which many poles of power competed in ever-shifting alliances?

Centralised governance is done; stick a fork in it. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold… but “mere anarchy” might not be the horror that Yeats expected it to be. We’re adaptable critters, us humans; we’d do well to remember that.

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