Networks of cities

This month’s Long Now talk is Benjamin Barber’s If Mayors Ruled the World. In the talk, which is a warmup for a forthcoming book with the same title, Barber offers an intriguing view of global governance. It won’t arise from a formal coalition among nation states, he argues. Instead it will emerge — indeed already is emerging — as cities form networks and share best practices. Stewart Brand summarizes the argument:

New York City’s “hyperactive” mayor Michael Bloomberg says, “I don’t listen to Washington very much. The difference between my level of government and other levels of government is that action takes place at the city level. While national government at this time is just unable to do anything, the mayors of this country have to deal with the real world.” After 9/11, New York’s police chief sent his best people to Homeland Security to learn about dealing with terrorism threats. After 18 months they reported, “We’re learning nothing in Washington.” They were sent then to twelve other cities — Singapore, Hong Kong, Paris, Frankfurt, Rio — and built their own highly effective intelligence network city to city, not through Washington or Interpol.

It’s convergent evolution, Barber suggests. Jam a few million people into a limited space and, no matter which nation owns that territory, you’re dealing with the same social, economic, and environmental problems. Solutions that work in one city are likely to work elsewhere. And cities, unlike nations, can’t kick the can down the road indefinitely. The garbage has to be picked up sooner rather than later.

I’m interested in this notion because I’m working on a city-scale best practice that will, I hope, take root in a few cities and then spread to others.

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