54% of the world’s population now lives in cities, and more humans move to urban areas every day.  But with voters and power concentrated in metropolitan areas, are nations holding cities back?

Democracy was designed to rule a city, after all – Athens. Maybe we’ve stretched the democratic system farther than it was meant to be expanded? Could we let democracy function at its optimum scale – the city – while finding some other way to organize on a federal level?

Cities are efficient

Mayors are emerging as the new presidents, and could increasingly become leaders for progress in the globalised, urbanised world, leaving the nation as a secondary structure solely handling international, transterritorial and security questions (and to a lesser degree, lawmaking).

Three key ideas speak to the city (or more precisely, the metropolitan area) working better as a governable body — and most people now live in one of them.

  1. Proximity to politicians => Accountability
    By definition, a mayor lives within her or his constituency. If a mayor ignores those constituents, they can arrive at their doorstep within the hour. This creates accountability. At this scale, community leaders may rise to the forefront to solve constituents’ issues, as opposed to career politicians. Cities have a scale where the chief priority of leaders is helping people. For example, Paris starts offering its residents bikesharing with Vélib, arguably the first wide-scale bikesharing system after initial experiments in Denmark and Holland. Bogota solves commute times for its poor with innovative public transportation systems, now spreading to Seattle and other cities through the global meetings of mayors
  2. Shared fate => Homogenous interests
    Cities are a a big group of people with similar values and interests. Pollution, corruption, or bad public transport will affect everyone, directly or indirectly, as they all live in the city. When citizens are aligned, there’s less time wasted bickering and making compromises in between interests that are so misaligned (gun control, abortion) so as to make compromise senseless, and more time making sensible compromise between slightly divergent interests. Maybe the scale of cities is the most efficient scale for human decision making, because everyone can still see and relate to each other — and see the direct consequences of the policies they vote for. In New York City, residents are offered subsidized insulation, rainproofing and solar to decentralize the grid implemented after hurricane Sandy
    Zurich, despite being socially conservative in the early 90s, offers heroin addicts Methadone to clear up Europe’s biggest open drug scene.
  3. One Purpose => Focus
    A nation has to multitask, balancing foreign policy and domestic issues. A city government on the other hand is by definition focused on itself – there’s nothing to distract it, because everything outside of the city is handled by the national government. This intense sense of focus lets cities concentrate on what they do best: improving life for their constituents and helping innovation bloom. Examples include San Francisco (following Massachusetts, among others) offering its residents universal health care, and New York City (under Khan/Bloomberg) reinventing the urban planning model to deliver improvements to its inhabitants faster

It’s a given that cities will become the predominant political chassis in the globalized 21st century as most people will live in them, leading their countries on environmental, social and technological levels. Democracy has and is working well for cities.

There are of course problems with the city-first model. An obvious example is corruption through the urban elite ignoring the rural populations. However distant politicians in a capital ignore both urban _and_ rural populations. Another problem is that if we truly returned to city states like Amsterdam or Venice in the middle ages, a lot of the efficiencies of focus would evaporate as the city would have to worry about security, maintaining supplies, etc. And where would the edges be between San Francisco’s sphere of influence and LA’s?

One caveat here is that being too extreme and truly returning to nation states can lead to its own issues: partitioning any area into too many small autonomous cities leads to problems like the housing crunch we face in California, which was partly due to cities only looking after their self interest as opposed to those of the larger region. Same for traffic, water, inequality, homelessness.

Nations are inefficient

Western nations seem more dysfunctional and less representative of their constituents’ wishes every day. Meanwhile, cities and local governments have been more responsive on many fronts, leading innovation on the environment, societal issues, healthcare, education, and finance.

The nation, by comparison, has key disadvantages. Among them: 

  1. Distance
    National politicians are removed from constituents and feel little direct pressure from them outside of the election cycle. Leaders all over the West are increasingly accused of pandering to lobbyists rather than to their constituents. Why? Lobbyists are in the capital too — gaining the ear of politicians whenever they want. But constituents from Texas aren’t going to Washington to demonstrate. Someone from Southern Brazil isn’t going to take a three day bus ride to Brasilia.
  2. Complexity
    Some problems don’t have a solution everyone can accept. Sometimes too many divergent interests can’t be bundled into a compromise. Finding an acceptable solution for 350M or 1B people is difficult. This is where political gridlock comes from. Polish farmers may feel alienated from farming laws proposed by Spanish lobbyists.
  3. Lack of Focus
    When one million challenges are all calling for attention – from international threats and disasters to domestic challenges abstract and real – setting an agenda that can help your constituents can be noisy. A nation is in charge of too many things at once.

Historical Precedent

The oldest cities go back much further than the oldest nations for a reason. Ancient kingdoms started as city-states: proving a governance system and policies on a small scale at home first, then expanding to the surrounding territory. The historical norm has been that innovation (for example democracy) flowed outward from the city.

Top-down democratic nations by contrast are arguably a historically recent construct: 1776 in the US, 1848 in most of Europe, after World War II elsewhere. On the entire timeline of governance, this experiment of stretching democracy over whole nations is a relatively brief experiment we’ve been trying for 150 years. This experiment has yielded mixed results during the 20th century: Peace and wealth but also war, famine and poverty. We should not take for granted that this is the best way to rule our nations (even if democracy does work well within cities). We may be able to find solutions despite strongly divergent interests on a federal level.

When we were inventing nations in the 19th century, perhaps we hastily spread the democratic model too thin. We assumed that what worked for the city will work linearly for a larger scale of nations, the UN, the galaxy. Nations are overextended constructs from the 19th century. I predict we will naturally refocus on the optimal size for democratic decision making: the city.

What’s Next?

Now that most people live in cities, we can turn to the human-sized metropolitan scale for lawmaking and civic life, creating more nimble, efficient and fair societies. I predict we will see the world’s nations increasingly lose their lawmaking and execution power in the next century to be nothing more than a communication platform between cities and a funding pool for building shared projects no city alone could. The role distribution we’re heading towards in this new balance is:

  • Cities self-govern their citizens and experiment constantly with improvements as they do today. But they will increasingly make their own laws for internal civic life and police corporate “citizens” themselves (which will reduce the danger of lobbying due to lack of distance).
  • Nations align the cities amongst each other by spreading the results of successful experiments between them. Because the burden of lawmaking increasingly falls on cities, nations gain a new clarity of purpose: they build the cities’ common projects with shared funding. The shared fund will be used for transportation, research, interplanetary exploration, and defense – though the need for defense may be reduced as _cities_ don’t generally have a thirst for war – nations do. Transportation, research and space programs will therefore take up the bulk of new nations’ time.

The current anti-globalisation trend (and its dark cousin, nationalism) is a signal of this need for decentralization. Examples include (much simplified here) farmers in Poland not wanting to bow to the will of Brussels, Brexiters wanting sovereignty from the EU, Trump’s rural voters resenting Washington’s policies, etc. These decentralization trends are driven by frustration with inefficiencies and the changing balance of power between urban and rural populations. But decentralization of power away from global & regional agreements and back to the nation-state alone doesn’t make a society more fair. The tension will only be resolved once we take this decentralization movement to its conclusion: empowering efficient decision-making at the level of cities and metro regions. Anti-globalisation is not the end state – eventually, anti-nationalism will follow.

The optimum scale for human society is the city. As city populations swell further this century, cities will increasingly rule themselves while nations will be repurposed to mediate between cities while expanding human society beyond earth. This re-decentralization will be a positive – leading to less war, faster progress and a fairer society.

Thanks to Eryk Salvaggio, Can Olcer, Laura Erickson, Zebulon Reynolds and everyone else for reading drafts of this. Also read: Why Cities keep growing, Companies always die, and life keeps getting faster. Originally posted at “As cities grow, nations die.”


Photo: Several of the oldest cities of northwestern Europe are highlighted in this astronaut photograph from 2011. The metropolitan areas of London, Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam stand out due to their large light “footprints.” Photo Public Domain via NASA

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