Students of international relations have been concerned with the return of the Middle Ages for a while. Political scientists have observed the relative decline in the power of nation-states and the growing importance of supernational military and trade organizations.
These organizations — the UN, WHO, WTO, NATO, even the EU — are showing some cracks. But the fraying of the international order is not making states stronger. They, too, face the threat of disintegration or diminishing importance.
Where is the threat coming from? Cities! Just like in the Middle Ages, cities are now becoming quasi-independent centers of power and policy. City-states such as Singapore, Dubai/UAE are also on the ascendance.
The rise of nationalism may seem like a resurgence of the good old 20th Century nation-state, but it can also be seen as a (temporary? futile?) pushback against the growing influence of cities such as London (Brexit) and New York (Trump).
Ideas and creativity are the scarce resources of the 21st Century. Ideas are generated by humans. We're starting to understand what happens when the balance of power shifts from corporations to individuals (corp adapting to how people work, not the other way around).
This is forcing companies to change and it is forcing landlords and office buildings to change. But it will not stop there. The next step is for the cities themselves to compete directly — and fiercely — for INDIVIDUAL talent.
In a sense, this focus on talent was what Richard Florida wrote about in Rise of the Creative Class nearly two decades ago. But back then, people really didn't have that much choice (no bandwidth, no tools = hard geographical constraints).
Also, many of the large companies flocked to cities that already had existing talent and existing service providers that were left behind by previous employment waves in the same locations (finance in NYC, hardware in SF Bay).
Meaning, the talent didn't exactly choose these cities and was then followed by employers. The cities already had existing network effects, and employers were going there to pick up existing talent (and then attracted more).
What's interesting in the current moment, with the internet truly giving talent a CHOICE, is that cities will become more important because working from home makes it even more necessary and fun to live in a relatively dense area.
But, choice will shift the dimensions of competition between cities. The same thing happened to offices over the last decade: they remained important, even became more important, but the old signifiers of quality became "good enough.
Instead, competition in the office world shifted to aspects that were previously overlooked or unimportant: interior design, community, social vibe, digital experience layer, sustainability, network vs. single location, symbolic value, and activism.
The same thing will now happen to cities. A lot of the old dimensions have become "good enough" — you can access a decent job, get Amazon deliveries, have your artisanal coffee, give your kids good education.... in so many different places, easily.
All these things are no longer "deal breakers", even if differences in quality persist between cities. The real differentiation then shifts to other dimensions of the "product": How walkable is it? How beneficial is the tax system? Who else is there?
And the "who else" can now be isolated. I don't need to live in a city of 8 million people to be close to 5,000-50,000 cool/smart/specialized people relevant to me and my work. It is now possible for all of us to live in a much smaller town, enjoy each other, and have access to enough big-city-caliber services to be happy and prosperous.
Many would still choose to live in big cities. But their choice will be among many more options. This means that competition between cities will become FIERCE. The competition will not be restricted to existing cities. We will see whole cities (charter cities and other types) emerge, backed by private or sovereign capital, to compete for talent. Medieval City-States are making a comeback.
And talent itself will consolidate into new power structures. Here, too, the Middle Ages offer a hint: We'll see Guild-like groups of talented people flexing their economic strength not just against competitors and customers but against whole cities and states. Want us? You'll have to accommodate our demands — the things WE care about, the economic incentives WE want, the type of priorities WE deem appropriate.
Of course, not everyone will be able to exert such power. The medieval social structure is also making a comeback:
- Few lords (billionaires who own the playing field).
- A sizable layer of artisans with specialized skills.
- A mass of neo-peasants that now have an iPhone.
Within cities, medieval land uses will also make a comeback: more offices and workshops will be located within homes. More commercial activities will be in pop-up fairs rather than evergreen locations. And all this will happen in the context of other Medieval fixtures: plagues, fragmentation of trade and supply chains, bigotry, lower economic mobility.
The good news? A lot of these things have been going on for a while. And since we can see them, and since we can still (reluctantly) learn from history, we can also pine for an early renaissance — no need to wait 1,000 years for a better order to emerge.
I'll end with a quote from Eileen Power's Medieval People, published in 1924:
"We do not know how it felt to watch the decline of Rome; we do not even know whether the men who watched it knew what they saw, though we can be quite certain that none of them foretold, indeed could have foreseen, the shape which the world was to take in later centuries."
The Rome she is referring to above is not the city, but the empire and the world order it represented. But cities should still take heed.
Cover photo: Detail from Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delight