City States – The Wave of the Future?

The current trends relating to urbanization, local manufacturing, and indoor farming give cities a new-found power.

November 5, 2019, max stucki, trey tran

Looking at human history, nation-states are a recent invention. Thousands of years ago, the political and economic powers lay within the border of cities: Athen and Sparta in Greece, Babylon in Mesopotamia, Tyre city in ancient Lebanon, and Rome of the ancient Roman Kingdom. 

Nowadays, we have Singapore, Monaco, and the Vatican as the modern independent city-states; whereas cities such as Hong Kong, Macau, and Dubai are autonomous cities - independently functioning with their own governments but are still part of larger nations.

It seems hard to imagine a world without countries, but with the rising level of political and economic anxiety, there are talks of demanding independence for major cities.

This article is inspired by the Futurist's Pick of The Month "City-States - The Wave of the Future" by Futures Platform. To receive monthly insights from top futurists, register HERE.

Is City-State The Future?

To begin to understand this trend, we need to take a look back at the beginning of nation-states. The modern nation-state system was the consequence of the industrial revolution and imperialism expansions during the 18th and 19th centuries.

As the industrial revolution made production and transportation more accessible, societies started to become more complex and centralized bureaucracies grew to manage them. Revolutions in France and the United States also helped to create the "national interest" ideology with unified language, culture, and identity.

But the nation-state with its border, centralized governments, and sovereign authorities is becoming increasingly obsolete in the new digital world.

The Internet heralded a new borderless, free, and identity-less era. The birth of globalization stripped away the nation-state's sole power to enforce change.

Companies and organizations are international, and challenges like climate change, immigration, pandemic, and international crime all seemed beyond the nation-state’s abilities.

And with the waning power of the nation-state, it looks like the city-state is making a comeback. Unlike nation-states, city-states have the conditions to thrive in an international, highly connected world. 

Cities are centers of commerce, growth, innovation, technology, and finance. They also have more political flexibility to adapt to global challenges than nations.

On the issue of climate change, for example, since 2006, 60 cities have signed to promote partnerships and technologies to reduce carbon emissions.

In the US, after President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, more than 400 cities across the countries have vowed to adopt, honor, and uphold the commitment to the goals in the agreement.

Political anxiety is one of the reasons for the rebirth of the city sate. 

In 2016, just one week after Britain voted to leave the European Union, 50,000 people in London signed up for a protest against Brexit and demanded the city to be independent. Around the same time, more than 180,000 Londoners signed a petition asking for London Mayor Sadiq Khan to declare London independent.

With a population of 9.2 million and 270 nationalities, London is not only the largest city in the United Kingdom but also the European Union.

The city is also home to 33% of European HQs of Global Fortune 500, over 40% of the world's foreign equities, and 30% of the world's currency exchanges take place here. London's airports see more than 100,000 flights per month.

Therefore, it's not hard to see that Londoners have been overwhelmingly against Brexit, with 60% voted to remain in the European Union. And now, three years after the referendum, a newly established anti-Brexit party has urged backers to vote for London’s separation from the rest of the UK.

Political anxiety might be one of the reasons people start to disassociate with the nation-wide policies and identify more with the city itself.

Megacities that have international outlook like London might found their interests at odds with the rest of the countries, which prefer centering on domestic affairs.

At the moment, London is the first megacities where demands of independence have been voiced out loud. But with a rising level of political anxiety, there is no telling that other cities will not do the same in the future.

But what gives cities the possibility to become sustainably self-govern and sustain themselves? There are a few reasons.

Rapid Urbanization

In the last five decades, urbanization has increased rapidly. According to a report by PwC, more than half of the population lives in urban areas, and 1.5 million more people are moving to the cities every week. Most of this growth (90%) takes place in cities in Africa and Asia, where fewer and fewer jobs are available in the countryside. By 2050, it is estimated that 70% of the world population will live in cities.

Cities also wield the ultimate economic power. In 2015, cities generated more than 80% of the global GDP. All of the world's largest financial institutions are located in 9 major cities (London, Singapore, New York,  Zurich, Hong Kong, Chicago, Tokyo, Frankfurt, and Shanghai).

As urbanization grows, it puts more pressure on the central government to create sustainable development solutions for infrastructure, services, job creation, and environment.

On the other hand, cities will start acting more independently to look after the interests of their growing residents.

The Rise of Local Manufacturing

As cities became densely populated and diverse, a new trend starts to develop among city dwellers: producing and consuming things locally.

Hyperlocalization originates from both ethical and ecological ethos. The DIY (do it yourself) culture as a whole is a sphere of hyper localization, as are self-produced furniture (crafts, 3D printed own designs) or gardening. 

After the global financial crisis in 2008, the desire to be less reliant on multinational conglomerates has turned people toward their neighbors and local communities.

On the one hand, it deals with making things oneself. On the other hand, it promotes the idea of sharing, participating, and building the community, which aims to support individuals’ and communities’ goals and wellbeing.

The growing trend of hyper localization makes cities self-sufficient. As a result, the connection to the surrounding countryside would be significantly weakened. 

The growing interconnectedness, new indoor agriculture methods, circular economy, and rapid recycling, are all technologies that make smarter cities possible.

If these new technologies are introduced extensively enough and their development continues, it could be that the cities of the future are increasingly self-sufficient regarding, for example, their food, water, and energy production.

In this case, the connection to the surrounding countryside would be dramatically weakened.

What will the future of city-states look like?

If the city-state becomes wide-spread, the unity of states might be in jeopardy. Perhaps initially, the central government might try to keep the cities from gaining too much power. Still, this likely proves to be impossible given their significant economic, cultural and political influence.


Many countries might develop towards a federation in which the cities act as independent states which have a common central government directing the foreign and defense policies on their behalf.

On a global scale, the emergence of a large number of new de facto independent city-states could create both positive and negative possibilities.

The most significant effect is that the competition between the city-states would intensify as there would be no central government to redistribute the income from more affluent areas to less fortunate ones. For this reason, there could be a strong incentive to create a very business-friendly as well as a sophisticated atmosphere.

This would mean that the regulations created by the old states would be revised, creating more space for innovation and investment as well as a personal choice.

Agile and creative cities might reinvigorate the global economy by making trade easier and less dependent on nation-level politics.

The best-led city-states would feature practical and light regulations that would enable both a vibrant business and art scenes. Such cities would be the winners. The worse-off cities, however, might end up as local fiefdoms of corrupt politicians, or even as dictatorships.

Various cities would also become hubs for artistic and cultural endeavors. By having more significant independence than before, cities could decide to focus on becoming the center of some specific cultural industry.

Politically, some cities would also feature various political doctrines, and some of them could be ruled by very idealistic, visionary, or downright utopia-minded leaders, leading to experimental governmental structures and legislation.



How Likely Will This Scenario Become A Reality?


Even though the city-state movement is gaining momentum, it is unlikely that the nation-state system will collapse soon.

The emergence of city-states would not necessarily affect all countries. Especially those states where the differences in development between areas are the greatest, the cities would have the most to gain from independence.

However, also in more affluent areas, where a single city dominates the economic life, the option for independence would be high.

One of the more problematic aspects of the city-states would be the difficulty of creating and implementing international treaties of any kind. If the number of independent states would rise massively, the collective ability to come up with universally accepted norms or agreements could be hampered significantly.

At the moment, cities do not have adequate infrastructure, services, job creation, climate, and environment to combat the distressed migration of 200,000 people a day from the countryside to the city. This problem will only get worse if the city becomes independent. 


However unlikely it now seems that some major cities would declare independence, the drivers that could bring about the realization of such a trend are there, and they are growing stronger.

What would a world which would be made mostly out of networks of independent cities look like? Would it be a more harmonious and peaceful world, without the tensions related to the nation-states? Or would it be a chaotic mess without a clear direction? And most importantly: what will such a future mean to you? Exciting or frightening? Or both?

What do you think about the futures of city-states? Let us know in the comment.

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