The two great trends of the 21st century are the rise of cities and the pervasiveness of technology. Human civilization has become human-technology civilization, and life centers not on nation-states but info-states.
New York City, the world’s financial capital, also now ranks right behind Silicon Valley as a hub for tech startups. Alongside the growing number of digital companies—which have created more than 60,000 new jobs in New York in the past three years—plans for Cornell’s new $2 billion medical research center on Roosevelt Island will boost the city’s role as a bio-tech hub as well. All of this means economic diversification in a place that has been too dependent on finance—and hopefully more financial power flowing into tech rather than into derivatives when the markets pick up again. New York, in other words, is in transition toward becoming not just a financial center, but an info-state: a place that thrives by offering secure connectedness—the internal attributes of stability and rule of law—but without sacrificing constant connectivity to the rest of the world. The internal dynamism of info-states is coupled with a robust external diplomacy around trade, investment, intelligence and policing, airline connections, academic partnerships, and commercial alliances among companies and stock exchanges. All of these underpinnings of growth and reputation are too important to be left to federal governments. NYC Global Partners is something of a multiagency foreign ministry for New York, enabling Mayor Michael Bloomberg to have his own commercial and climate policies, coordinated directly with those of other resourceful mayors.
The rise of the info-state is about not only money and technology, but also loyalty and collective identity. As the Canadian scholar Daniel Bell argues, we are entering an age of “civic-ism,” in which pride in one’s city supersedes national patriotism. The “city-zen” is the new citizen. We identify ourselves as much or more as New Yorkers as Americans—and so many expats and immigrants in New York feel the same way.
The measure of success in the age of info-states isn’t wealth or security alone but also Technik, the capacity to harness emerging technologies for the benefit of the population. Numerous cities already stand out as leaders in urban Technik. Tokyo manages to be simultaneously the largest, wealthiest, and most futuristic city on earth, a truly unparalleled accomplishment that is clearly Shanghai’s role model across the East China Sea. Corporate-technocratic Singapore has made itself the foremost “living lab” for capturing urban data to facilitate services. And in Berlin, city authorities are piloting an ambitious electric-car-sharing platform.
To adapt and compete, hundreds of established cities will undertake technology upgrades such as traffic mapping, greening buildings, linking various modes of transport through electric-car-sharing schemes (including foldable cars) and offering personalized medical care through digital interfaces.
Importantly, the difference between those cities that simply become “smart” through technological enhancement and those that have genuine Technik lies in the empowering of citizens to directly improve governance through their feedback, and to leverage connective infrastructures and data in order to quickly identify collaboration partners and commercialization opportunities. Residents of San Francisco and New York, for example, can use “social mobile networking” (discovering like-minded people based on the proximity of profiles) and access crowd-sourced seed funding for startups.
It is also important to remember that most of the world’s population will not reside in places like Tokyo and Singapore any time soon. Instead, they are more likely to live in cities resembling the growth model of Dubai, whose population has doubled every decade since 1960. While to many, Dubai represents instant, atrocious mega-sprawl, it is also proof of how quickly expanded urban infrastructure creates absorptive capacity to accommodate residents. The billions of people living in slums such as those of Lagos, Cairo, and Manila need new housing, sanitation, and communications infrastructures to elevate their quality of life.
Even slums can have Technik, however. Mumbai’s Dharavi already has an estimated economic value of $2 billion, based on selling its aluminum, plastic, textile, and other recycled wares nationwide. Despite its ramshackle infrastructure, rapidly growing mobile-communications penetration could enable mobile literacy programs, mobile banking, and other dimensions of an “Internet of People” in which people are the infrastructure whose geolocation generates data used to improve services. The strategic use of data, which the Indian NGO MapUnity collects from phones, police radios, and security cameras, can be leveraged for everything from traffic mapping to locating public services. Even slums can become “smart slums.”
Managing urban complexity has elevated mayors to superstar status. Bloomberg, Boris Johnson, and other leading mayors are often referred to as “CEO of the city.” Given the size of urban populations and potential for violent dissatisfaction, being a mayor already can be as difficult as running a country, or more so, requiring rapid response in delivering public services, from garbage collection to health care, where national governments may fail.
Policy experiments and innovations are possible in cities that might not be politically feasible elsewhere. For example, it is perfectly conceivable that mayors could consider all their residents city-zens and integrate their voices and skills in ways that partisan federal politicians couldn’t. This makes them the pivotal figures in bringing about a progressive political system that uses technology to turn marginalized populations into stakeholders.
Info-states, Technik, civic-ism—the new Hybrid Age requires a new vocabulary, new way of thinking, and new modes of governance. The places that will thrive in the future will be the cities where these emerging trends are openly embraced.
Ayesha and Parag Khanna are directors of the Hybrid Reality Institute and authors of the new book Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization, just published by TED Books.