Benjamin Barber, the urban theorist behind the Global Parliament of Mayors, has died aged 77

Benjamin Barber in 2010. Image: Erich Habich/Wikimedia Commons.

I've just learned that the political theorist Benjamin Barber died of pancreatic cancer on Monday, at the age of 77.

Barber was perhaps best known for his 1995 book Jihad vs. McWorld, which foresaw the rise of terrorism. But he was also an urban theorist, whose 2013 work If Mayors Ruled the World argued that nation states are increasingly powerless to deal with the challenges of the 21st century.

Instead, he argued, we should be looking to cities as the building blocks of the global government of the future. In the last years of his life Barber even began putting those ideas into practice, by convening a Global Parliament of Mayors. It held its first meeting, attended by 60 mayors, in the Hague last autumn.

I was lucky enough to speak with Barber in the run up to that event last summer. You can hear my interview with him on this podcast (though I will confess up front, the sound quality is not great).

And if you're not familiar with his ideas, here's a brief summary I wrote in 2015.

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So here's a question for you: can cities save the world?

This may seem a tad unlikely. (Seriously, have you seen cities? Crowded, dirty places, full of bloody people.) But it's a question you encounter rather a lot in urbanism circles – so we thought it was about time we explained how everyone came to be asking it.

The most comprehensive explanation of why cities could, in fact, save the lot of us came in a 2013 book by the American academic Benjamin Barber. If Mayors Ruled The World is a long book – 400 pages, a dozen chapters, plus brief case studies of enough mayors to fill a small bus – so I'm not going to do it justice in a short comment piece.

But its central thesis is straightforward enough. Nations, Barber argues, are inevitably moribund, ideological and obsessed with their own sovereignty. Cities, by contrast, are naturally co-operative, pragmatic, and used to solving problems.

In this situation, Barber asks, which political units would you trust to save humanity from its own destruction?


The Peace of Westphalia has a lot to answer for

We've probably been a bit flippant there (did we mention it was a long book?), so let's unpack this a little.

Nations are supposed to have complete control over their own destiny, thanks to the magical doctrine of national sovereignty. This, so the theory goes, allows them to set whatever policy they like within their own borders. And, if you can set any policy, you can solve any problem.

National sovereignty in the form we understand it now is a surprisingly recent invention – it dates back to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War, and in which the major continental European nations agreed to respect each others’ territorial integrity. (This came as a pretty welcome development to the people of the largely German-speaking Holy Roman Empire, who had spent much of the previous three decades getting the crap kicked out of them by a succession of non-German speaking armies.) It's a neat theory, with just one tiny problem: it doesn't work.

For one thing, it's the sort of flannel you probably have to be at least a medium-sized nation to believe in the first place. Luxembourg, say, is probably rather less convinced of its own ability to control its own destiny than France.

More than that, though, many of the problems facing the world today – migration, climate change, terrorism, getting multinational corporations to stop pissing about and pay their bloody taxes – are international in character. Reducing carbon emissions; preventing Starbucks from simply moving its profits to a more tax-friendly territory; re-housing the thousands of people arriving on Europe's southern shores – solving any of these problems will require national governments to be able to cooperate with each other.

And the source of their power, paradoxically, prevents from doing this. Because sovereignty is meant to be absolute and indivisible, it's perceived as a zero sum game: if it's shared, it's lost.

So it is that a head of state who works with their peers to tackle any of these problems will tend to find themselves accused of giving away their nation's precious sovereignty. Look at the dysfunctional relationship between European governments and the EU; or the US's inability to ratify all sorts of international treaties down the years. In ideology-fuelled national politics, there will always be mileage in accusing your opponents of betraying their country.

In other words, the doctrine of national sovereignty gives nations the illusion that they have complete control of their destiny. In practice, it just gets in the way of fixing things.

There’s no neo-liberal way of emptying the bins

That's the bad news. The good news is that cites don't have to deal with these problems.

For one thing, they don't have an inflated sense of their own importance: very few cities in the modern world have full sovereignty, so they are used to ducking and diving and cutting deals with other authorities (national governments, mostly) to get their own way.

It’s also probably easier to see the benefits of co-operation when you don’t have physical borders to make you feel that a gain for one country is a loss for another. Whatever the rivalry between London and Paris, the French capital isn't going to attempt to annex Bromley any time soon.

Most importantly, though, cities actually have to deliver. National politicians can argue about whether the economy is turning around, or the education system getting better, or the national defences getting stronger til the cows come home, and it'll probably be years before its clear who was right. But if a city stops emptying the bins, or the local tram network falls over, you know about it immediately.

The result of this is that, while national government may be ideological, mayors have to be practical. Prime ministers, presidents and national legislators can argue about the science of climate change; but mayors actually have to deal with the flood waters that are swamping their streets.

For the same reason, they’re also more likely to be centrist. As another urban theorist, Harvard's Edward Glaeser, is fond of saying, there's no left- or right-wing way to empty a trash can. That’s why, for all the difference in their background and rhetoric, there was a remarkable degree of continuity in policy between London’s first mayor, "Red" Ken Livingstone, and his uber-Tory successor Boris Johnson.

So. Nations are moribund talking shops; cities have both the attitude and the motivation required to actually solve problems. Barber's conclusion is that the way forward is for cities to share ideas on the best way of doing things; in the long term, he suggests a "parliament of mayors" as a step towards global governance.

It's an ambitious idea – perhaps a utopian one, too. But it might be one worth trying nonetheless. Because, while it may not clear that cities can save the world, Barber makes a depressingly convincing case that countries can't.

You can read more about Barber's ideas here. And you can hear him on our podcast here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Smart cities need to be more human, so we’re creating Sims-style virtual worlds

The Sims 2 on show in 2005. Image: Getty.

Huge quantities of networked sensors have appeared in cities across the world in recent years. These include cameras and sensors that count the number of passers by, devices to sense air quality, traffic flow detectors, and even bee hive monitors. There are also large amounts of information about how people use cities on social media services such as Twitter and foursquare.

Citizens are even making their own sensors – often using smart phones – to monitor their environment and share the information with others; for example, crowd-sourced noise pollution maps are becoming popular. All this information can be used by city leaders to create policies, with the aim of making cities “smarter” and more sustainable.

But these data only tell half the story. While sensors can provide a rich picture of the physical city, they don’t tell us much about the social city: how people move around and use the spaces, what they think about their cities, why they prefer some areas over others, and so on. For instance, while sensors can collect data from travel cards to measure how many people travel into a city every day, they cannot reveal the purpose of their trip, or their experience of the city.

With a better understanding of both social and physical data, researchers could begin to answer tough questions about why some communities end up segregated, how areas become deprived, and where traffic congestion is likely to occur.

Difficult questions

Determining how and why such patterns will emerge is extremely difficult. Traffic congestion happens as a result of personal decisions about how to get from A to B, based on factors such as your stage of life, your distance from the workplace, school or shops, your level of income, your knowledge of the roads and so on.

Congestion can build locally at pinch points, placing certain sections of the city’s transport networks under severe strain. This can lead to high levels of air pollution, which in turn has a severe impact on the health of the population. For city leaders, the big question is, which actions – imposing congestion charges, pedestrianising areas or improving local infrastructure – would lead to the biggest improvements in both congestion, and public health.

We know where – but why? Image: Worldoflard/Flickr/creative commons.

The irony is, although modern technology has the power to collect vast amounts of data, it doesn’t always provide the means to analyse it. This means that scientists don’t have the tools they need to understand how different factors influence the way cities function and grow. Here, the technique of agent-based modelling could come to the rescue.

The simulated city

Agent-based modelling is a type of computer simulation, which models the behaviour of individual people as they move around and interact inside a virtual world. An agent-based model of a city could include virtual commuters, pedestrians, taxi drivers, shoppers and so on. Each of these individuals has their own characteristics and “rules”, programmed by researchers, based on theories and data about how people behave.

After combining vast urban datasets with an agent-based model of people, scientists will have the capacity to tweak and re-run the model, until they detect the phenomena they’re wanting to study – whether it’s traffic jams or social segregation. When they eventually get the model right, they’ll be able to look back on the characteristics and rules of their virtual citizens, to better understand why some of these problems emerge, and hopefully begin to find ways to resolve them.

For example, scientists might use urban data in an agent-based model to better understand the characteristics of the people who contribute to traffic jams – where they have come from, why they are travelling, what other modes of transport they might be willing to take. From there, they might be able to identify some effective ways of encouraging people to take different routes or modes of transport.


Seeing the future

Also, if the model works well in the present time, then it might be able to produce short-term forecasts. This would allow scientists to develop ways of reacting to changes in cities, in real time. Using live urban data to simulate the city in real-time could help to inform the managers of key services during periods of major disruption, such as severe weather, infrastructure failure or evacuation.

Using real-time data adds another layer of complexity. But fortunately, other scientific disciplines have also been making advances in this area. Over decades, the field of meteorology has developed cutting-edge mathematical methods, which allow their weather and climate models to respond to new weather data, as they arise in real time.

The ConversationThere’s a lot more work to be done before these methods from meteorology can be adapted to work for agent-based models of cities. But if they’re successful, these advancements will allow scientists to build city simulations which are driven by people - and not just the data they produce.

Nick Malleson, Associate Professor of Geographical Information Systems, University of Leeds and Alison Heppenstall, Professor in Geocomputation, University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.