The return of Athens and Sparta, or the Rise of the Corporate State?

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

For those of us who have been following the development of smart cities and smart government over the past few years, it has become more and more obvious that it is not only, perhaps not even mainly about the rapid advances in smart technology and the IoT. It is also about the social and political underpinning, who will control the developments and how far they will be allowed to go.

Recently we have seen a few useful straws in the wind. Last month, as some of you may have already noticed, the UK voted, by a narrow but decisive majority to leave the European Union. This will be the first time in its almost 60 years that the EU has contracted rather than expanded, and moreover losing its second biggest economy.

Partly in direct consequence, there is now a distinct possibility that Scotland in turn will leave the UK, which would leave the UK barely half the size physically than it was less than a century ago (prior to the secession of most of the island of Ireland). What is much less noted is how much more fragmented the world as a whole has become.

A century ago Europe was dominated by a few empires. Now, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the threatened fraying of the EU, there are a whole swathe of countries that either never knew an independent existence before or did so only transiently, especially in Eastern Europe. From Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus, to Croatia and Montenegro, Scotland could potentially re-emerge after 300 years followed perhaps by Catalonia. In the world as a whole there are almost 200 countries that can claim some degree of independence, and many more seeking it.

What has this to do with the way the smart world is organised? Quite a lot, actually. Evidence suggests that one of the things many people in the UK were voting “against’ was the power of global corporate forces that are moulding our lives, with Brussels seen as their eager collaborator. I Personally take a rather different view, that it is precisely corporate power, which is being reinforced by technological advances that means that if something like the EU did not exist, we would need to invent it, or perhaps more accurately, we need something that moves on from the original vision of the EU to reflect the more complex world that we are now moving into.

Business of course already operates on a global scale. The world’s most valuable corporation, Walmart – which let us not forget, also owns one of the UK’s leading supermarkets, would if it were a country, rank 26th in the world, just behind Belgium, and indeed ahead of 2/3 of the members of the current EU. If we focus in more on direct players in smart technology, Apple would rank 44th, putting it on a level with such a technologically sophisticated country as Finland. And Microsoft, which now only just makes it into the world’s top 50 corporations, makes more money than any of the 10 smallest EU members.

It seems obvious to me that, if such corporations are not to be dominating political decisions, as well as the technology, then a degree of cooperation between governments is needed, something possibly very like the EU, which has at least forced corporates like Google and Microsoft to sit up and take notice.

Another fascinating trend, that takes us perhaps in a slightly different direction, is the fact that so many of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced countries are in fact city states, or something very like it. According to the IMF, the top 10 countries with the highest per capita GDP, included six oil producers (no surprise there),  but also four that could be described as “city states” or something like it, namely Luxembourg, Singapore, San Marino and Hong Kong  – taken separately from the rest of China.

Now of course very small states have the option to attract business through tax incentives that are widely seen as underhand, in a way that simply is not feasible for larger countries. But what is also interesting is that both Singapore and Luxembourg have been to the fore in global smart city developments. There are clearly advantages where a government can focus on the needs of a city and its immediate surroundings and needs. Even in larger countries, cities and their regions are being accorded more power, or are demanding this.

And of course this is not a new trend. You can travel northern Europe, from Flanders to the Baltic States, and admire handsome cities that grew rich as part of the Hanseatic League, essentially a league of cities that dominated much of northern Europe’s trade for several centuries from the late middle ages onwards. Before that, the first major flowering of European civilisation, with huge leaps in philosophical and scientific understanding occurred in a scattering of Greek city states. And of course the discoveries, inventions and creativity of the Renaissance was cradled by Italian city states from Florence and Pisa to Venice and Mantua.

Linked to this, it perhaps tells us something that by and large, the UK’s biggest cities voted very differently in the EU referendum to the small towns and countryside, reflecting a different attitude. There’s a case for saying that Londoners, Parisians and Amsterdamers have more in common with each other in some ways than with their own hinterlands.

Could politics and technology therefore be moving us away from the old fashioned nation state, and perhaps away from massive continental alliances like the current incarnation of the EU, but towards alliances between small states and cities that have common interests and a common culture to protect?

One thing seems clear to me; if we want a future whether the major technology providers work for us, rather than one where we for them, then we need a major shake-up in the way the world is managed.

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