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Smart Cities: The New Centers of Sovereignty

There is a revolution in progress that is shifting responsibility for governance and sovereignty away from the state to cities. This revolution even has a name: the fourth industrial revolution.  

In many parts of the world, cities are growing exponentially and becoming centers of gravity for power, technology, innovation, and diplomacy. It won’t be long before mayors will appoint security advisers whose power and reach will outstrip that of national security advisers. Already cities are becoming independent of their federal governments and forging international partnerships without states and the United Nations. The World Economic Forum has recently acknowledged how cities are transforming how we do foreign policy.

While the shift in power from states to cities in the United States is most dramatically highlighted in the political and legal battles over immigration policy between U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. sanctuary cities, the phenomenon is global and ubiquitous. Another dramatic example of the growing power of cities is the extensive counterterrorism, intelligence gathering and surveillance capability now possessed by the police department of New York City that many medium-sized European nations would envy.

The United Nations, recognizing this development, is contemplating how to harness the power of city diplomacy. Hundreds of city networks and thousands of transnational initiatives have been launched bypassing states and even in opposition to central governments. The U.N. is now actively considering creating an alternate body called the U.N.-Urban to acknowledge and coordinate this tectonic shift in governance.

Processes Driving the Power of Cities

We are rapidly becoming an urban planet. In 1800, only 3% of the world’s population lived in cities; in 2008 it was 50%, and in 2050 it will be about 70%. Today, 10% of Pakistan lives in Karachi, and the city contributes 20% of the country’s GDP. Casablanca hosts 10% of Morocco’s population and contributes 32% of its GDP. Tehran, with 10% of Iran’s population, has a 30% share in its GDP. Istanbul now has 20% of Turkey’s population within its urban boundaries, and it contributes 31% of Turkey’s GDP. Only 35 countries have a bigger GDP than Istanbul ($350 billion); this richest Muslim city is on par with nations like Israel and Malaysia. No wonder the recent local election for the political control of Istanbul was so contentious.

Control and governance of major cities are critical because they shape the economy, culture, and hence the politics of nations more than the states themselves. This is not limited to the Muslim World; New York City, for example, has an annual GDP in excess of $1.7 trillion — more than Canada, Russia, Australia, and 170 other nations. Only 10 nations have economies that are bigger than the Big Apple’s.

Cities are experiencing exponential population growth because of the rise of urban economies and the potential for jobs and need for workers. This economic growth is coming from two critical economic trends: innovation in and rapid development of the tech sector and the expansion of the service sector, particularly the financial sector.

With rapid urbanization and dramatic shifts in demography and means of production, governance too is becoming more and more dependent on technology, big data, the Internet of things, and continuing innovation in how public goods are defined and delivered. Urbanization and its demand for smart city governance are creating a new way of living that will necessitate new ways of thinking about and dealing with global politics, global economics, trade and migration, international security, war, and peace.

Connectivity: The New Asabiyyah

In order to think beyond the old Westphalian nation state-based models of international politics, I recommend that we look at our emerging city-centered reality through the lenses of Al Farabi and Ibn Khaldun.  Both of these medieval Muslim philosophers looked at politics and political development at the city level. Al Farabi imagined a virtuous city whose citizens focused on self-actualization and virtue. Ibn Khaldun saw cities and urbanization as the centers of civilization where art, science, and culture came to fruition. Notably, he argued that these cities and centers of power would only emerge after the emergence of asabiyyah – solidarity based on shared identity (usually ethnic, tribal, or religious).

But in this age of globalization, these sovereign cities must be diverse and multicultural. Traditional asabiyyah-based politics are their prime nemesis.

So how can these cities attract migrants and talent from all over the world and still maintain a shared collective identity? This is where Al Farabi and Ibn Khaldun’s vision applies most aptly. They will need a new form of asabiyyah – one based on technological innovation, the primary driver of these cities’ culture and growth. Cities are already shaping a shared purpose through social justice campaigns run on tech (digital social media). Networking technology is uniting cities around common virtues and creating the latest avatar of asabiyyah.

Both people and the technology people use are connected and communicate with each other. By 2030, there will be 500 billion devices communicating with each other using the Internet of things. Not only will the citizens and smart devices of these cities be connected to each other, but also more and more cities will connect to each other, forming networks of sovereign cities. The new world of smart cities will be based on collectivity through connectivity.

Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy

The U.S. spends billions each year building capacity and democracy overseas. Its foreign aid budget for the year 2020 is $40 billion dollars, and half of it will be spent on capacity building, sustainable development, and nurturing the self-reliance of other nations. So far, the U.S. development aid approach incorporates the important role of non-government agencies but not that of autonomous cities. It is time to rethink and help cities become smarter by investing in smart technology, city governance, and city networks. Doing so may weaken states, but it will ensure that the world is better prepared to usher in the age of the urban planet.

Dr. Muqtedar Khan is a Professor in the Department of Political Science & International Relations at the University of Delaware and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy (CGP). His website is www.ijtihad.org and he tweets at @MuqtedarKhan. He is the author of the forthcoming book Islam and Good Governance: A Political Philosophy of Ihsan. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.