If you’d been born 1,500 years ago in southern Europe, you’d have been convinced that the Roman empire would last forever. It had, after all, been around for 1,000 years. And yet, following a period of economic and military decline, it fell apart. By 476 CE it was gone. To the people living under the mighty empire, these events must have been unthinkable. Just as they must have been for those living through the collapse of the Pharaoh’s rule or Christendom or the Ancien Régime.
We are just as deluded that our model of living in ‘countries’ is inevitable and eternal. Yes, there are dictatorships and democracies, but the whole world is made up of nation-states. This means a blend of ‘nation’ (people with common attributes and characteristics) and ‘state’ (an organised political system with sovereignty over a defined space, with borders agreed by other nation-states). Try to imagine a world without countries – you can’t. Our sense of who we are, our loyalties, our rights and obligations, are bound up in them.
Cities are strangely unique organizational units. Over time, a city organically shifts its boundaries to reflect its people, not the other way around. Cities are about choices. Choices lead to possibilities. These qualities gives cities the Resilience they need.
An increasing proportion of the world’s population is living in megacities. The United Nations predicts that by 2030 there will be 41 megacity clusters containing two-thirds of the world’s population.
In a remarkable trend these Megacities, which are the economic powerhouses of the countries in which they exist, are becoming political powerhouses too. They’ve been organising into interdependent networks, such as the Global Parliament of Mayors, the C40 global network of cities committed to acting on climate change, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities. These networks have accumulated enough organisational experience and influence to make a significant mark in 2018 in international arenas such as COP24, the UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Poland in December 2018.
The growing autonomy and influence of cities has risen due to several factors. One is the global trend towards devolution. In England and Wales, for instance, there were no directly elected mayors at the start of the millennium. Now there are 23 and their electoral contests are attracting an increasing number of high-profile candidates.
There is a growing recognition that nation-states are – compared with cities – unfit for modern challenges. They have failed to deal effectively with issues arising from migration, climate change, wealth inequality and terrorism. This failure partly explains the declining faith in traditional political parties in many countries and in the value of democratic government itself. But it is also behind the rise of cities, which are much more effective at pragmatic problem-solving on issues ranging from flood management to dealing with increasing numbers of refugees.
It’s worth mentioning that nation-states are a new historical invention and have only been the dominant form of political organisation for the past two centuries. They are an extension of city states. Cities, in contrast, are the greatest and most enduring social technology ever invented by humankind. That is why cities lasted thousands of years, while empires and nations have risen and fallen around them. They risen and fell but lasted, nevertheless.
It is true that nations will not disappear quickly or completely, but we may remember 2018 as the year of the return of the Renaissance city-state. Get ready for bold initiatives from cities and their mayors in areas such as global warming, while national political parties bicker with each other and intergovernmental conferences remain locked in stalemate. The ancient ideal of the polis is back.