There’s a City in My Mind

Charter Cities and Beyond...

Arcosanti is a glorious cliff-side would-be utopia: a cluster of apses and arches that suddenly jut out of the Arizona desert. There are stately apartments with circular windows where the permanent residents live and they cast bronze bells and blast Flight of the Valkyries when lightning storms come swirling in….  

Hidden from view, down in the tarantula-infested Big Bug Creek below are the yurts and concrete cubes where the transient residents live. I lost my virginity to an Italian translator in one. A rival for her affections wept and pounded the door while it happened, and tried to run us down in his champagne gold BMW the following morning. (He’s now a famous architect).  

The complex was intended to be a proof of concept for an arcology: an attempt to cram 2,000 people together into a single building to create a functioning community. The problem with the arcology was the people who lived there: construction waned after an initial burst of enthusiasm in the 1970s, and while I was there in 1998, only 50 people were living there full time and they had little incentive to complete the project and invite a bunch of strangers into their groovy, cozy home. It was my first taste of a utopian future colliding with the present, and it left a discordant tang. 

The “Cyberpunk” in the title of my Substack isn’t just a piece of nostalgia. It’s what happens when people gunk up the gears of our marvelous machines and the beautiful, brutal friction from being caught within. If there’s a point to this project it’s an attempt to sift through the squish and to try to understand what’s happening to us in a world of exponential change and strangeness.

As a teenager I watched this change happen in real time. Delhi—though I didn’t realize it at the time—was the most cyberpunk place in the universe. Much of the architecture remained from the Raj, with a couple of ancient ruins intermingled, and the rest was concrete slab and rebar of the type V.S. Naipaul described in a House for Mr. Biswas: little rusting fingers grasping at the sky.

*

A Charter City is an economist’s version of an arcology. It’s an ambitious and wild concept; essentially the idea is that a city outsources its government from a third party. Ideally this would be a benign entity like the United Nations, and not someone who runs private prisons in rural Oklahoma. 

Hong Kong’s jangled governance is perhaps the closest thing we have to a functional Charter City. They became a British Crown Colony in 1843 after the Opium Wars. As part of the negotiations, Kowloon, the territory surrounding Hong Kong Island was leased to the British government. When the lease came due neither the British nor Chinese could come to an agreement about renewal or dividing Hong Kong from Kowloon, so they returned the entire colony under condition that it become a Special Administrative Region, retaining the rights it had under the British government. 

For the past twenty years, the People’s Republic of China has been attempting to unwind many of those rights, and despite spectacular resistance they will eventually succeed in doing so, but for now Hong Kong remains at least culturally distinct from the area surrounding it and arguably manages to function at a higher level than the countries surrounding it; although China’s megacities are fast closing the gap. 

Hong Kong also comes the closest to a functioning arcology that I’ve experienced. I lived on a Chinese junk in Aberdeen Harbor for a couple of months. Each morning I’d take a skiff onto shore and then I’d suddenly be plunged into one of the densest, most exciting cities I’ve ever experienced until I reached my office at TIME Asia which was 44 floors up (I was an intern). You could feel the tower sway in the breeze and watch the horizon slightly dip. The work was electric and all consuming, but beyond work the world was thick with activity, a thousand tiny kiosks, coolers of beer, food sizzling on skewers and thousands of alleyways, trillions of potential paths to take, even dangerous ones—China and Macau were only a hydrofoil ride away and there were bandit-run gasoline islands dotting the outer edges and British submarines roaming—yet the City was safe and, for me at least, a comforting Britishness radiated beneath it all.

Paul Romer, the man who’s said to have coined the term “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste” (although I feel Clauswitz might have said it first) became interested in the idea of Charter Cities in the late 2000s. This was a strange and scary time. The global financial system was on the verge of total collapse. This was the era when Occupy Wall Street started up, and people were concerned we might tilt into a 1930s-style global depression. Of course, we’re a lot closer to that now but at the time it was spooky.

Honduras was in bad decline. The United States murder rate of 5.3 is a national disgrace—particularly in certain major cities—but even St. Louis, with 60.9 murders per 100,000 (2018) wasn’t as dangerous as the entire country of Honduras. At its peak in 2012 there were 7,192 murders in Honduras or a murder rate of 86 per 100,000. 

Romer suggested that the Honduran government could lease a city to a benevolent third party who would stabilize it and stamp out the corruption and reignite the economy. This wouldn’t be a colonial occupation, rather something more along the lines of a franchise: Honduras would continue to own the land and was simply agreeing to adopt protocol from the international equivalent of Subway sandwiches. 

He came close to convincing them. The first step required a constitutional vote declaring the area a special economic zone, but the deal fell apart at the last moment when the Honduran opposition raised a stink about self-determination, and kicked the internationals off the board. The vote failed. A couple of teams tried again in Madagascar, and the idea again sputtered out when opposition parties got word of what was going on, and used it to excoriate their opponents. 

As the global economy started to improve, crime rates in Honduras went down and with U.S. help (which was likely not an entirely benign process) they got the murder rate down to about half of what it once was.

In Delhi, I was one of the city’s insulated apartment dwellers, hermetically sealed from the hoipolloi in their cubes. The vulnerability and weirdness of it all consumed me, it got to the point where all I would notice were the lepers and the warnings about bombs and sectarian violence. Each morning leperous children my own age would mash their faces against our window glass, and beg for alms. My entire system of belief emerged in response: no one should ever have to live such a way. 

A cynic might suggest the charter city is a way to import a well-behaved elite and impose whatever racial, colonial and other structures allowed them to dominate their own country. An enthusiast might imagine the idea as something akin to Sid Meier’s Civilization—scattering cities like Johnny Appleseed until they blossom into a space-faring future. 

I lean toward the enthusiastic side: a charter city seems like a radical solution to poverty to me. A way to do an end run around the corrupt and stagnation holding so much of the world back.I would love to see free cities orbiting the earth and sunk into mine shafts, ideally with Soleri swoops and swirls, but embedded in this enthusiasm is the presumption that I would remain a cosmopolitan apartment dweller rather than pushing an electro-mop, and thus wouldn’t be subject to the wrenching change life in a free city might require while it “adjusted.” 

It’s also hard for me to truly wrap my head around nationalism and patriotism. I’m a dual national and have lived all over the world. I don’t vote. It’s easy to pretend local politics won’t affect when I can just grab my British passport and leave. 

Or at least I could pretend up until the pandemic sequestered us all. The latest grand masterplan spans the global down to the microscopic scale.

Klaus Schwab, chief economist of the World Economic Forum published a short book in June calling for The Great Reset (2020), which would be using the global calamity as an opportunity to rebuild the world’s economic and social structures. 

The momentum for change already exists, Klaus says, as countries all over the world have uprooted communities and changed their laws to fight COVID-19. Since a serious economic downturn would follow the pandemic, the thinking goes, why not use the pandemic to create something new that would be more equitable and forward thinking? Populations have shown they’re willing to make sacrifices to save their elderly and vulnerable members. Without some sort of change our pre-existing order would be doomed anyway. 

Even before the pandemic, the “medium term” outlook for our collective future looked grim. The US National Intelligence Estimate comes out every five years and is the gold standard for medium-to-long term (next 20-35 years) forecasting in the futurist think tank community. The one variable they were absolutely confident in was an increasing number and variety of crises (caused by war, climate change, terrorism, and population pressures).

The (2015) NIE foresaw three possible responses to a future that would be defined by its responses to those crises: one future where we remain highly interconnected with other countries and relatively peaceful; a second where countries isolate themselves from one another, and global trade slows to a trickle; and a third where nation states become much less relevant and essentially dissolve and fork their power to non-governmental organizations and regional organizations. In the States you could conceivably map those three futures onto our political parties—the rising right advocating for immigration restrictions and trade embargoes with competitors as the isolationist scenario; the center (consisting of establishment democrats and republicans) pushing for trade deals and more flexible borders representing the interconnected scenario, and finally the rising left, who would welcome a more atomized, community-led quasi government.

Schwab has a three-point plan. First he wants to harness recent advances for the public good, then he wants countries to ensure their investments advance shared goals in their countries (in other words do more than pay down national debt or prop up pensions) and above all else get countries to work on achieving equitable outcomes. Fear is a powerful motivator, and perhaps the fear of another pandemic might usher in something like what he’s proposing. It’s a little sinister. A pandemic makes tracking easy to justify. The more information we have, the easier it is to influence someone. It only takes nudging a small fraction of the population to tilt an election. But ultimately the Great Reset just doesn’t seem inspiring.

Paul Romer’s Charter City seems like it could ignite a thousand Hong Kongs and Singapores. You can envision it working even if you hate the colonialism and cultural Darwinsim embedded within it.  The Great Reset seems like it would create a Borgesesque living hell of endless bureaucratic procedure, quarreling lobbyists, quires of paperwork, and illegal cheeses. 

I can’t imagine it ever leaking off the assembly floor and inspiring anyone to do anything other than oppose it. 

*

We Americans don’t have much of an appetite for charter cities and master plans: I ran a quick unscientific Twitter poll, and 83 percent of my audience thinks of the concept of charter cities as “weird neocolonialism” as opposed to the remainder who think of it as “a chance at utopia on earth.”

As for me, I still can conjure the image of the planes punching through the Twin Towers and the puff flame of flame, rubble, glass and falling people that followed. Sept. 11th ended Soleri’s dream, but I still can’t look away from his work. I can get lost squinting at the curves of a city for a million built into a dam but ultimately it’s a relic; a hank of capital M modernity that looks as dated as the rusting tail fins on a 1959 Cadillac ElDorado.

China has been building small cities all over the country for decades, attempting to lure rural dwellers, many of whom still live by developing world standards into cities where they might be educated and given a chance to do something more productive. Many of these cities are ‘smart,’ meaning they incorporate advances in sensor networks and telecommunications to do everything from monitor their populations’ energy use to tracking the spread of coronavirus or ammonia fumes in public bathrooms. This philosophy of building out the infrastructure ahead of time continues beyond their borders. They’re funding an enormous investment campaign called the Road and Belt Initiative that’s building freeways and ports and power stations and other improvements throughout neighboring countries (and beyond—in strategic areas like the Africa continent and Middle East).

The idea is to interconnect their trading partners and build new land and sea routes in the most heavily populated part of the globe. The vision is that it will eventually become something like what the Silk Road once was, a central artery connecting all points within the Asian continent. Eventually as incomes and national clout builds in China and India, the balance of power will shift away from the United States and Europe and back to where it was for most of the last two thousand years. 

There are also cultural movements, a bit like the British Libraries or the Goethe Institute,  pouring money into China studies. More cynical observers have pointed out that there has been plenty of investment money available for those kinds of projects from banks and international organizations, and that The Road and Belt Initiative seems more like a boondoggle enriching politically connected contractors. But I don’t see why it can’t be both a boondoggle and a beacon for the future.

On some level it seems like charter cities failed because no one really wants to be ruled by an outsider. Global movements like the Great Reset are arguably even less desirable given how bad peacekeeping and international development efforts can be when they go wrong. But there are other ways of envisioning a future that don’t seem to threaten to bury the individual. Perhaps the most interesting project in the world today, is the TAJI Movement, an attempt to use a blockchain-based community to foster a pan-African creative movement that would eventually create private cities with their own system of governance (based on shareholding—a bit like coop). 

*

TAJI is a local project, unlike many of previous crypto-infused attempts to do things like toppling the Venezuelan government by flooding the country with Bitcoin. Their vision is to create a network of private cities and people connected, funded and facilitated by a blockchain network and a Pan-African cultural movement. They call for  “10 percent of Africa’s populace to call private “world” cities their home by 2100 (approximately 500 million)... These cities will be fundamentally global in their character, trading goods and services with the broader global community, they will be technology anchored (i.e. remote knowledge work, universal use of blockchain in the cities), and they will be liberal at their essence—free markets across the entire factors of production stack.”

For context, the African continent is undergoing a massive population growth spurt. But historically their economic development has been slower than their counterparts in Asia or Europe. According to TAJI, during the Cold War when many African countries gained independence, African countries focused on providing goods for their internal markets and exporting raw materials rather than trading amongst themselves. This was largely the result of their colonial legacy and linguistic divisions, which have also prevented a Pan-African movement from happening in the past.

More recently wireless technologies which have allowed many developing countries to leapfrog certain expensive infrastructure improvements (e.g. there is no need to build a national network of banks or telephone lines when apps and cellular networks are available). This has created a pretty substantial middle class. Eventually, however, this growth will founder without enormous amounts of capital investment and modernization of things like power grids and freeway networks and reforming governments that have been dealing centuries of corruption.

TAJI’s team consists of Mwiya Musokotwane, who developed a proto-private city called Nkwashi, Perseus Mlambo, founder of a major African digital bank, Iyin Aboyeji, a Nigerian tech entrepreneur, and Charter Cities Institute head Mark Lutter. It’s advised by Vitalik Buterin, Ethereum’s creator and Balaji Srinivasan—an outspoken Silicon Valley investor and former Coinbase CTO. They’re betting that by using blockchain technologies and a version of the charter cities concept (i.e. one that doesn’t rely on an outside authority) they build the infrastructure (and institutions like schools, investment groups, etc) to accelerate this process even further eventually sparking a kind of renaissance.  Think of it as the European renaissance being sparked in Italian city states (or city squares in Civilization). 

This year TAJI held a virtual conference and released two papers: The Black Paper, which was a call to arms and manifesto describing the need for a cultural institution (and cryptocurrency) that would spark a pan-African movement that would trigger a New African Renaissance. The second was a description of their Kilimanjaro project, a Singapore-like ‘private city’ that the TAJI movement would be building all over Africa.

What’s particularly exciting about this project is that they recognize the importance of aesthetics and are as concerned with it as they are investment and entrepreneurship. They refer to African Futurism in their TAJII-Kilimanjaro project. “Whilst Wakanda [referring to Marvel’s Black Panther] is a fiction, this idea—that Africa’s people are it’s highest value resource is in fact true. If we built Wakanda, we would have to unleash the talent, creativity, and potential of Africa’s people. Vibranium doesn’t exist, however, Africa’s talent and potential are certainly real and increasingly being made manifest.” 

They point out that Black culture has “arguably become mainstream global culture yet the diffusion of this culture has not come with a corresponding rise in economic prosperity.” African culture, they say, has been ruptured by colonialism, and to this day African countries are largely defined by their relationship to their former colonizer. There’s French Africa, British Africa, Portugese Africa and it’ll take a renaissance in African culture to bring them all together. 

It’s a radical idea, yet seems conceivable. The blockchain will be collectively owned and provide their shared currency (the Dija coin); it will provide jobs and distribute new forms of culture and create a flow of much needed hard currency. So far they’ve secured 500,000 acres and are attempting to bring entrepreneurs, software developers and builders to the area which will become the new city. 

The TAJI project is audacious and exciting. I do get a little nervous when I see things like their conflict resolution system will be partially determined by participants IQ and EQ (these are outdated and arguably dangerous metric), for example, but I’m deeply excited by how they propose to avoid one of the most cloying influences in contemporary culture—the vast, voracious marketing machine, which has become so powerful that it manages to hoover up all aesthetics and art before it has a chance to put down roots in the culture.

Ed Keller, lecturing about Post Planetary Cities pointed to the movie She (2014) and its soft edged hipster design and how much it resembles the products and marketing flowing out of Jony Ives Apple designs. Advertising and commercial aesthetics are powerful and incredibly blunt instruments. Nothing is sacred. Mr. Peanut has been killed and resurrected as a baby, and then a beer swilling teen a few months later. Beloved brands are mutilated or disappeared over night. The other day I went looking for a picture of the old Bladerunner Johnnie Walker bottle—in the 1982 movie it looked like a bottle of mouthwash, a square and ugly but completely futuristic chunk of glass. To my horror, I discovered that not only did it exist, and was for sale, there was a massive marketing campaign and special editions being sold of a new version of this bottle that appeared in the new movie and even worse, The Glenlivet had gone a step further into futurism, and had created actual seaweed based agar “Tide Pods” filled with whisky. I must confess that I think about eating one all the time. 

A planned, utopian city can’t happen under those conditions. Public relations and viral ads and artificial intelligence designed to tweak our prejudices and spike our dopamine have turned social media into a polarized wasteland filled with hungry ghosts. But it doesn’t have to be that way. By yoking artists, writers and thinkers to something larger than themselves, maybe the TAJI Project has found a way to create something as aesthetically appealing as Paolo Soleri’s arcology (or a Glenlivet booze pod) that will last longer than a product cycle or two.

Architecture is about transforming the physical world to redirect biological flow. As a discipline it requires the sublime because buildings are far larger than humans are and you need a unifying vision larger than any single member. Salman Rushdie digested all of the sensory overload around him in India and compiled it with magical realism set to the beat of a Bollywood movie. India’s hyper-colors are all there, throbbing with squalls of filmi music. On architecture’s fringes, where scale reaches into outer space or the submicroscopic, the sublime is necessary. Or perhaps to create something as profound and persistent as a new city you need an aesthetic and ideology that fits the part. 

*

Thank you so much for reading this!

If you’ve been enjoying these articles—please consider a paid subscription, do so and you’re guaranteed to live among the elite in the city of the future…