In June, Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) invited me to give a talk at their Cities Against COVID-19 (CAC) conference. I was honored to join a long list of experts from around the world, who, over the course of five days weighed in on the many challenges cities face with COVID-19. The conference was sparked by the wide interest in Seoul’s approach to combating COVID-19 and the city’s policy of sharing their countermeasures globally. The city’s COVID-19 information site had over 5 million visitors after just one month of launching.
This open and collaborative approach to problem-solving is nothing new to Seoul. In fact, Seoul is a leading light in the Sharing Cities movement, which Shareable catalyzed back in 2011, and takes a similar global, collaborative approach. They lead the way while seeking input from their partners, like Shareable, and share what they learn as they progress. Their leadership, groundbreaking example, and collaborative efforts have helped grow the Sharing Cities movement to around 100 cities worldwide.
In fact, it was on this topic that I was asked to speak. The city challenged me to explore what Sharing Cities could become post-COVID-19. My co-panelists included Jeong Seon-Ae (Director General, Seoul Innovation Bureau, SMG), Alvaro Porro (Commissioner of social economy and local development, Barcelona), Harmen Van Sprang (Co-founder of Sharing Cities Alliance), Christian Iaione (Professor, Luiss University, Italy), Michel Bauwens (Co-founder, P2P Foundation), Lee Seung-won (Director, The Center for Asian Urban Societies, SNU). You can check out their presentations here.
Below is the video and transcript of my talk. Feel free to email me with any feedback or questions and if you’d like Shareable’s help with your Sharing Cities project.
Hi everyone, I’m Neal Gorenflo, executive director of Shareable. I want to thank Mayor Park for hosting this summit and inviting me to participate.
In the next 15 minutes, I’ll explore some ideas about sharing cities in a post-COVID world and break the idea out of its past conceptual frames. For instance, thinking about sharing cities as merely an engagement with the platform economy or sharing as a behavior.
In doing so, I hope to expand sharing cities as an idea so that it can better enable cities to realize their potential for global transition.
Cities must change in several fundamental ways to realize that potential. They must become:
- More self-governing, more independent from nation-states
- More self-sufficient financially and materially
- More democratic, their residents much more engaged in governing urban resources
- Better able to cooperate and share resources with each other
I’ll expand on this vision a bit and then share five ways cities can head down this path.
While the growing instability of our biosphere and global civilization are worrying to say the least, the prospect of a rise in city power is an exciting silver lining because it is in self-governing city-states that civilization has historically been born and reborn.
To paraphrase historian Geoffrey Park in his book, “Sovereign City,” renaissance can’t happen without city-states, they go hand in hand. This isn’t such a stretch as it might sound at first as cities have always been the cradle of civilization. Some thinkers have gone so far as to say that city-states represent civilization at its best.
However, the rights and powers of cities remain too subordinate to global capital and nation-states to truly take the mantle of leadership in global transition.
While cities have a disproportionate amount of economic power, they often lack an equivalent amount of political power. In many of the most powerful nation-states including the U.S., legacy political systems haven’t caught up with the reality of our new, global urban civilization.
Moreover, the pandemic has shown how dangerous this is in an era of rising, globally networked populism and authoritarian national regimes. In the U.S., Brazil, Europe, and elsewhere, there has been a shocking amount of conflict between local, regional and national governments in their pandemic response.
Unfortunately, citizens have paid with their lives and livelihoods for the added confusion, delay, and lack of coordination this has caused. Local and regional governments have often taken the safer, more scientifically sound courses of action to manage the pandemic. This is not surprising as they tend to be more pragmatic and accountable to their constituents.
The pandemic not only shows that cities need more independence from global capital and nation-states, but it also shows the opportunity that cities have to enhance their global leadership. I’d also go one step further — they also have a responsibility to enhance their power as they are one of the most important levers for global transition.
Cities are already leading the way on a range of critical issues, climate change being the prime example. Yet, their progress is not yet fast or thorough enough. I doubt that cities will be able to realize their potential as agents of global transition within existing political arrangements, but rather will need to work around, change, and even contest them.
Cities will likely need to redefine their relationship to their residents, to each other, and to their nation-state hosts in order to realize their potential for transition. This will need to be a redefinition that leverages cities’ soft power (cultural, economic) on the way to winning more hard power (legal, political).
That said, such a redefinition can’t leave rural areas behind as cities have done in the recent past. It’s worth considering combining the ancient Greek idea of the polis with newer ideas like bioregionalism and regenerative development, which put place, social, environmental, and cultural values center stage.
In this larger context, we can stretch our imagination and think about how cities can fight COVID-19 and other shared challenges together today and into the future.
Here are five ideas to consider, a few of many footstones that need to be laid toward a better future:
1. Municipal finance for transition.
How can the huge amount of money that cities control be better leveraged for transition? For instance, cities’ purchasing power, the massive balances they keep at commercial banks, the huge pensions they control, and more.
Such innovations like public banking, participatory budgeting, and local purchasing and pension investment strategies can put the power of the public purse to more public benefit and enhance the soft power of cities.
I wonder too about how cities could work together to create new cross-border financial institutions that would enable them, for instance, to mass their capital and create credit, exchange surpluses through a mutual credit system, create digital currencies, and start funds that invest in local businesses.
As it is, cities are now even more strapped than before the pandemic. In some cases, national governments have made the situation worse by stinting on or delaying aid to cities.
Cities would do well to internally fund transition, lessen their financial dependence on national governments, and otherwise create new, commons friendly circuits of money.
2. Platform cooperatives.
Much of the platform economy is centered in cities. In what ways can cities work together to foster or create locally controlled, wealth-spreading platform businesses?
Why not create platform business on a franchise model with shared ownership on a local level and shared infrastructure, marketing, and branding on a global level? There is no better time as the technology barriers are minimal. Technology frameworks exist to quickly and cheaply build platforms. The key challenges are governance, scaling, and design — not technology.
Cities have played nothing but defense during the first phase of the platform economy. It’s high time to play offense.
3. Local production, shared global supply chains.
Cities can lead a strategic retreat from an unsustainable peak of production and consumption by localizing and mutualizing the local economy. There may be a prosperous way down, to borrow from the title of a book that applies the principles of ecosystem ecology to energy descent. Open-source models deployed within and between cities would be a key feature of such a strategy. Michel Bauwen’s concept of cosmo-local production applies here, which in short is about locally-controlled production using globally shared knowledge. This along with shared global supply chains would increase food security, prevent shortages of key material, and improve disaster response.
4. Grassroots mutual aid.
The pandemic created great need. People responded with an unprecedented wave of grassroots mutual aid. This was a global phenomenon involving millions of ordinary people. This is an opportunity to make this high level of citizen engagement a more permanent feature of city life.
5. Infrastructure for sharing.
Seoul and many other cities have experience with sharing neighborhoods, urban villages, cohousing, coliving, and other forms of urban intentional community. COVID-19 also has cities around the world re-thinking the use of streets, parks, and public space to give people more space in cities.
This experience has profound implications in the post-COVID world because while we tend to take them for granted and overemphasize the role of individual behavior change, our social networks, physical environments, and more — our total context — have more influence on our behavior than anything else.
So how can this experience be expanded through cities’ spatial organization, built environment, and platform footprint to foster more widespread and daily commoning?
How can we create a total context for commoning?
I’ll close with this thought. We live in a many peopled world with different languages, cultures, religions, and ideologies. These differences have been dangerously heightened recently.
It is in our shared needs and visions grounded in the places we love where our differences have the best chance to be reconciled. This takes us beyond divisive issues into the realm of what’s possible together.
Cities can walk this path together as stronger, more independent entities, but hand in helping hand.