City-city dualism (II)

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
14 November, 2017
Editorial: 150
Fecha de publicación original: 12 enero, 1999

If you don’t have enough for your own good, don’t worry there will be plenty of the bad

From the time of the Industrial Revolution, capitalism has relied on the country/city dualism. Both concepts have been imbued with cultural, social, economic and political meaning over the last two centuries. “Being from the country” or “being from the city”, belonging to the rural or urban cultural environment were – and are – identifying features filled with different and contradictory interpretations.. This world, this dual scenario, is about to crumble to dust before our very eyes. A child born today will, in all likelihood, go to university on a planet where the vast majority of the inhabitants live in cities. This will be the first time ever in human history that this has happened. What will this emerging urban civilisation be like? What conditions will be needed to prosper in it? What role will globalisation play in an eminently urban society? Which of the factors present at the moment will be fundamental then and which not? These are questions which, contrary to what one might imagine, have very open-ended answers.

The reason for this is that, in order to answer them, making projections on present tendencies in a mechanistic fashion is just not enough. We live in a world in transition in which the dominant paradigm is change, ruptures and uncertainty. And, in addition, we are moving towards a world which will reward those who are best prepared to adapt to the new circumstances, for inventing new social bonds and facing current unknown factors.

In the year 2015, nine out ten of the world’s biggest metropolises will be in Asia, Latin America and Africa. According to the U.N.’s most reliable figures, cities in developing countries receive 62 million new inhabitants every year. Within fifteen years, for the first time ever in history, people living in urban areas will outnumber those in rural areas. Even if the present rate of immigration to the cities slowed down for reasons which are unthinkable at the moment, the growth of urban areas will account for 80% of demographic increase in the world (some studies put the figure as high as 88%). And 90% of this expansion will occur in the developing world. This is the imminent scenario of the Net, the Information Society, which we began to outline in the previous editorial.

As is usually the case, this process won’t begin with a fanfare and a drum roll at half past five in the afternoon one particular day in the next century. The new tendencies leading to a political project for social change are flourishing all over the place and are becoming a priority. Above all, in those places where rapid change is accelerated by technological innovations driven by the citizens themselves. This “simple” fact overturns the traditional structures for the elaboration, packaging and range of transmission of knowledge, or, just as importantly, the role played by citizen networks (found amongst community centre centres, associations and ad-hoc bodies of the most varied kinds) in the design of emerging urban areas. On the one hand, while the predominant discussion about the city based on rational planning with a high degree of technology (the urban model of the rich countries) continues unabated, on the other, we can see how this concept is being torn to shreds by cities guided by social bonds, whose governments, in fits and starts and giant steps, are moving towards an increasingly complex process of coordination and negotiation amongst their interlocutors.

The cities that respond with the least flexibility to these new challenges, will be those that lose out in the Information Age. In order to respond in a suitable manner to the “new programme”, the city must promote itself as a social space open to creativity and innovation, concepts we need to elaborate on not just from the point of view of “investment” in innovation, but by “promoting” human networks capable of adapting to the emergent urban civilisation. In both these aspects, cities on the so-called periphery of capitalism have advantages. The necessary investment in technological innovation is getting cheaper and cheaper with respect to the social returns yielded. And, as far as human networks are concerned, while on the one hand it is true that cities in developing countries sharply illustrate the most conspicuous conflicts of societies in transformation (spatial segregation, social exclusion, serious inequality and increasing urban violence), on the other, they are also a hotbed of creativity and innovation sustained by a dense human framework with strong aspirations towards social cohesion.

Within this framework, there are two things that will clearly play a primordial role. On the one hand, the relationship between decentralisation and integration of the global and local through the nets. On the other, the value of an economy determined by a decisive relationship between competition and cooperation. In both cases, so-called marginalised cities have clear advantages. Decentralising factors within them correspond not only to administrative policies, but also to the recognition of the “de facto” circumstances they start off with. It is the human groupings in the midst of this brutal spatial segregation and with the demon of social exclusion overwhelming them, who organise themselves in an attempt to find their way in political, administrative, cultural and economic circuits depending on their particular possibilities. Under these circumstances ,the global/local duality is no longer a mere prosthesis, but becomes an essential function in this process.

In addition, subsistence economies, self-help economies or those which find themselves at the crossroads where accelerated changes are taking place, tend to sharpen the angles of competition and cooperation through the art of negotiation and the management of conflicts of interests within the different components of local communities. Competition and cooperation are the two pillars of the emerging Information Society. While the rich countries “discover” the value of cooperation on the Net in the midst of an increasingly savage neo-liberal economy (squandering enormous technological resources in order to set up electronic commerce in tune with this economy), developing countries have already come a long “experimental” way in the complex art of merging the rigours of competition with the negotiation of cooperation.

How will these tendencies finally take shape? The answer is easy: nobody knows. Nevertheless, it goes without saying, that I don’t believe we can say as surely as some do that “the poor of today,will be the poor of tomorrow”. Nor that we are at the preliminary stages of the Penultimate Great Conspiracy of the Big Corporations plotting to shove all the Nets up our asses as practically the same people maintain. The situation, to put it diplomatically, is much more complex and the dice have not been thrown yet. Much of the future is still open-ended. In the end result, everything will depend, firstly, on the coalitions and institutions that we are able to create in order to operate in the public space of the city. And, secondly, on the speed at which institutions learn. The present political system in the vast majority of advanced countries only affords citizens a very limited role, totally insufficient to deal with the emerging urban landscape. The jump from a tutelary State to a dynamic State inhabited by citizens capable of acting as agents of change will, of course, not be an easy one. Above all because we do not know what kind of state the latter will be (if anything at all). But it is here that the world of the future is taking shape. A world made up of precursors of the next civilisation, as we will see when we take a look at some examples next week.

Translation: Bridget King.