The Rise of the 21st Century City-State

As my scenario planning class, Future of the Infrastructure, starts to move towards its conclusion this semester we’ve divided into four groups each working on imagining a different possible divergent future.

I’m in a group working on a scenario titled “The Rise of the 21st Century City-State”. We’re imagining a future where a lost decade of economic doldrums have left federal governments paralyzed by enormous deficits and defaulting on their debts, increased global competition over energy and reduced post-peak oil supply has driven up the cost of transportation dramatically, the last century’s rapid migration from rural areas to urban centers continues at an ever-increasing rate, and maturing digital fabrication technologies make local production a real possibility even in slums and favelas.

In such a future, cities begin to come into conflict with federal governments that no longer have the wherewithal to support them financially, but still make policy demands on them. A 2014 Headline: “Mayors of Los Angeles and San Diego Defy President Palin, Continue Amnesty for Mexican Immigrants”. Or maybe even sooner: “Beijing Implements Passports for its Residents to Stem Tidal Wave of Rural Migrants”.

Cities suffer the effects of climate change and other natural disasters and are forced to cope without aid from national governments. A 2016 Headline: “Blackwater Emergency Management Forces Arrive in Hong Kong Following Tsunami: HK Gov Shelling out $100M A Day for Relief Services”. Or, closer to home, in 2015: “New Orleans Residents Refuse to File Federal Tax Returns in Protest on 10th Katrina Anniversary: Newly-Elected Tea Party Mayor to Hold April 15th Rally in Still-Unrebuilt Ninth Ward.”

In order to more vividly imagine this future, we recently conducted an exercise where we pictured how it would affect the normal life of a single imaginary person in the year 2022. After generating some demographic details (age, place of birth, place of residence, occupation, etc.) we spent ten minutes composing a quick portrait of our fictional characters and their lives in this City-State world.

Here was mine:

My name is Alan Ornstein. I’m 17 years old. I’m originally from Walnut Creek, California, but two years back my parents moved us to Paris. We live in the 5th Arrondisement — the New Rice Quarter — in one of the many new co-op local organic restaurants that grew up on the swollen banks of the overflowing Seine.

I’m an only child and most of the seven or so people who come and go from our communal apartment work in the patties or in the kitchen. The sous chef even lives which us, which is great because he tries out new recipes on us. I cook a bit as a hobby, but don’t actually work in the restaurant. My parents are crazy foodies so they’re a little disappointed because they were hoping I’d take over the restaurant.

Though I do miss seeing my American friends in real life, I didn’t mind leaving Walnut Creek too much. After all, I can do my job from anywhere. See, I’ve worked for Lucasfilm since I was about 12 doing 3d modeling and scanning for the movies. My friends and I taught ourselves after the school got really bad and our parents stopped sending us.

We’ll be presenting our scenario next Sunday, December 12th at 5pm at ITP. The event is open to the public and there should be quite an interesting discussion.

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