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Can We Live In a World of City-States?

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

David Roselle is one of our Emerging Fellows. He and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. His first article an important question about the increasing importance of city-states.

In 2015, the UN proposed the Urban Development Goals – a list of seventeen ideas for global collaboration that strive towards planetary health by 2030. The UDGs include eradicating poverty and hunger, promoting gender equality, and developing affordable, clean energy, as representing our most pressing challenges in the 21st century. To achieve the UDGs, the UN must rely on governments and the private sector to execute them. While these goals are aspirational, we must ask: are our current government institutions designed appropriately to deliver legitimate solutions to these complex problems?

The purpose of the proposed question is to investigate the efficacy of our existing geopolitical institutions for the 21st century. Are they structured to handle the world’s most challenging issues? Could a model dating back to antiquity – the city-state – plausibly be a more innovative governing structure for the future to respond to such lofty goals? While we need to avoid apologetics for the city-state government model, the city-state model could be used as a way to consider a new geopolitical landscape within an alternative future. It is a provocative future which could evolve beyond the competition of superpowers for global dominance, allowing new values to emerge.

This question is timely. Ostensibly, we are amidst a major era of transformation in which everything is being challenged — from our currencies to our cars, to the sanctity of our democracies. Yet, the government institutions themselves appear to be overlooked.

While there are valid reasons for concern, there are tools to make a difference. Design, for example, is one cognitive tool of many that has the potential to change organizations fundamentally. What if governments integrated human-centered design methods into the DNA of their institutions? What new opportunities would that afford society? In order to attempt such an overhaul, we first need to be able to name the social invention we are seeking to transform: the nation-state.

The nation-state is a relatively recent political construction that began after the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid-17th century. The nation-state bounded people together through customs, language, and religion, forming a powerful bond of allegiance to the state and land. This model was then exported to the world through colonialism and reinforced through colonial powers.

Today, the world looks much different. Nations are diverse, multilingual, and secular. The same customs that bonded citizens together before hold less meaning. Consequently, this sparks tension between ethnic groups as some struggle to cope with the change — illustrated through the wave of nationalism sweeping the West. This change brings into question what it means to be a citizen of a country. Within the course of a century, the world gained six billion people with two billion more expected in thirty years. The UDGs serve as a focal point to handle intensified pressure from exponential population growth. Can the nation-state adapt to these technological and social challenges or will a new model need to be innovated? It is a challenging question, but the urgency and importance of these questions are such that we cannot afford to ignore them.



© David Roselle 2018

Tags:  economics  politics  society 

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