Future of the City

A City Fit for the Future

The Future City debate has been the driven largely by generations of technocrats, often from within technology companies and iconic architects; one half obsessed by the power of technology and the other by the literal vision of the future.

But history actually teaches us something more; a meaningful city for our future will perhaps require us to invest in and innovate our institutional economy at all spatial scales more fundamentally; from neighbourhoods and local communities to the global commons. It could be argued in fact that the design of the institutional economy is the keystone framework for systematically building a city fit for the future.

By the institutional economy we mean the “rules of the game, and the means to make and seed the rules of game and to hold the players to account”. Together this ecosystem facilitates guides and constrains the conduct of individuals, collectives and organisations. This Institutional economy also includes the seeding of commonly understood codes of behaviour that potentially reduce uncertainty, mediate self-interest, and facilitate collective action — something that is desperately needed, and desperately lacking, at a time when we face global systemic threats from ideological conflict and global warming to peak oil and economic crises.

The institution economy encompasses the obvious laws, rules and regulations of government bureaucracies but perhaps more importantly the ability to nudge and seed new institutions and non-governmental organisations, nudge the economies of professionals and preference-led markets. It also includes how we curate behaviours and social norms that are essential to the fair, efficient, and effective operation and “governance” of families; our personal, social and business relationships with others; neighbourhoods and local communities; companies, business networks, and supply chains and common-pool resources of all kinds. It also operates at all spatial scales from neighbourhoods and local communities to the global commons.

The design of this institution economy is the actual means for building a city fit for the future; for it is the meaningful framework and accelerator which underpins the vision and founding constitution, and structures its manifestation through the urban masterplan.

We did not see it coming but our age has been about the disruptive reinvention of institutions — the rule, the rule making and the cost of holding the rule to account. This is a future that is being reinvented by a virtually transaction cost free reality of the web, where reputation systems are remaking trust and transaction; near zero cost of transaction is facilitating the development of a whole new class of institutional economy and unleashing a new typology of institutional activity on cities — from Impact Hubs to Fablabs, Techshops and social enterprises such as Loaf but this is just the beginning, imagine how this new institutional economy can be used to both seed and reinvent health, education, the professions, the university, etc.

It is these means that have often, at least in recent times, over the course of the last 30 years been left to be drawn and allocated on a master plan as opposed to being integrally conceived at outset as an institutional framework for seeding this new economy.

It is these future city institutional frameworks which determine whether our smart city will be a city of centralised corporatism or decentralising democratic citizenship.

It is these future city institutional frameworks which determine whether our open data initiatives will just be veil to support the next generation of privatisation of public data or whether they will build a new data commons for equitable insight and actionability.

It is these future city institutional frameworks, which determine whether we bias our city as a bastion of corporatism or a haven for the good venturing.

It is these future city institutional frameworks which determine whether our sharing economy is built to seed a new civic economic enfranchisement on peer2peer economy or just fractional renting by corporates.

It is these future city institutional frameworks which determine whether we build a city driven by openness, trust and weak ties or closed and strong ties.

It is these future city institutional frameworks which determine whether we build an economy which democratises innovation or centralises innovation.

It is these future city institutional frameworks which determine whether we embrace a 3d maker economy to democratise production and trade or cloud monopolise production.

It is these future city institutional frameworks which determine whether knowledge and practice will be hosted and verified via a generation of private corporate and 19th century professional institutes or through a generation of 21st century open guilds.

It is these future city institutional frameworks which determine whether we democratise our finance economy or monopolise our money.

It is these future city institutional frameworks which determine whether we embrace a future driven by coercion and the nudges of dark patterns or design for social good unleashed by behavioural economics.

It is these future city institutional frameworks which can help up embrace a future where we can rebuild a meaningful new democratic enfranchisement — a new social contract between citizen and state or city with an ever diminishing power of the vote.

Frankly, it will be these institutional designs, which will determine whether we live in world of declining inequality or an empowering 1%.

And frankly, it is the design of this institution infrastructure that is critical to creating a meaningful city for our futures and it is these very designs that are almost always missing from any blueprint, vision or master plan.

This strategic design of institutional economy may not give us the sexy image — for attracting the media driven global finance industry through the real estate PR machine. But it is this design and its innovation that has historically and will in the future drive our civilisation and its systemic progress.

It is the design & architecture of this institutional infrastructure and its economy that is vital to any meaningful discussion of Future Cities.

The question we face however is, whether we will continue to allow this architecture of the institutional economy to be passively co-opted and coerced by the 1% or will we use it, to grow and innovate to reinvent our Future City for the many — not just the monopolies of the few.

- Indy Johar

Indy Johar