"The next revolution will not be industrial or technological, but civic."
Updated: Jul 27
We are building cities for over two billion more people over the next thirty years at the same time as we are dealing with the fallout of an unbalanced global economy, climate change, and the mass extinction of species. This urban momentum is potentially Earth shattering. To a large degree how all of us address these civic challenges locally will resolve the much bigger issues of global warming, loss of biodiversity, and social injustice.
The rising social and economic influence of cities within nations and internationally has a profound effect on the balance of political and commercial power around the world. Ironically the trend towards subsidiarity and acting locally is growing across the globe with the result that more local power is being exercised in more places. The connectivity between these places ensures that the influence of their power is more fluid than fragmented. Unlike the past, the localism of our time is not insular or parochial: it is connected and emergent.
Labelled as consumers and defined by our work, we forget our role as citizens. Our individual civic powers have atrophied to such an extent that we have become illiterate in civics. Civics boils down to the simple question of who decides. No one knows the city where you live better than you, so why let someone else take the decisions? I use the term “city” loosely as shorthand for a place with a relatively high degree of urban-ness. Official city status does not matter: it’s the density and proximity of people that count, not the physical boundaries or population size.
Most of us are not activists, but all of us are citizens. Active citizenship is about finding new ways to make our city the seat of the solution and create non-linear change. It is about navigating the tension between our anger with the broken system and an appreciation of how it works. Too many of us think we don’t have the option of taking our lives in different directions. But the reality is that you do have this power at any point in time. You just have to use it.
It’s time we put ourselves back into the narrative. Nation states will continue their bids for wider influence and regional hegemony; corporations will tighten their grip on the public domain; individuals will claim power in their various roles from presidents to chief executives to celebrities. We cannot wait for any of them to lead the charge towards a more prosperous yet sustainable future. Instead the battle will be won or lost by citizens, by us, on the streets of our cities.