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Future Technology Trends - Digital Cities and Nations

On a recent Sam Harris podcast with Balaji Srinivasan, he discussed the broad trends of technological developments and his forecast for the next big trends. In the 2000s innovators built corporation digitally, in the 2010s they built social communities and networks in the later period of the 10s it was built digital currencies that were built. Balaji’s prediction is that the next shifts in innovation will center around the birth of digital towns, cities, and eventually even nations.

Balaji’s thesis is that the internet has worked its way through digitizing real-world things. We started with paper and documents by fair the easiest thing to digitize and then set out digitizing the mapping of proteins, RNA and DNA. Sequencing the genome, digitizing community, media, and recently currency. We’re now digitising not only the contractual process but actually mechanising the entire delivery of contractual promises and codifying them in a way that digitizes resolving contractual disputes, referred to as “code is law”. The next steps we’re taking are digitizing the way we organise, populate, design, fund, and build towns and cities.

Future Technology Trends

So what are digital towns and cities?

Balaji Tweeted:

“How to start a new city

- Build a community in the cloud

- Organize economy around remote work

- Enforce laws with smart contracts

- Practice in-person norms of civility

- Simulate architecture in VR

- Eventually, crowdfund territory

- And materialize city into the real world”

The idea is to build a Reddit-type community based on common interests, lifestyles, or beliefs but then translate that into building a city or a town that factors those things into its design. A town or city is mocked up in CAD and is then accessible in VR. The benefits of designing urban spaces like this are expansive. The most obvious being the city or town’s population has a common set of interests or beliefs. For example, if it’s a mostly remote working community that wants to optimize space to create comfortable remote working whilst optimising for health and fitness that can be built into the DNA of the town. Having your community (the people who the urban spaces and living spaces are being designed) being able to have input on how spaces are designed is obviously a boon for making spaces more liveable and inclusive.

The ability to walk into spaces that don’t yet exist means designers can iterate based on how a space might actually be used. Imagine a scenario where townsfolk’s avatars do a virtual housewarming and find out the kitchen table is too high or the walk-in pantry door blocks the thoroughfare to the toilet. Best to bug test the town before it’s set in stone. Being able to price every building, amenity, fixture, and material used based on geography is an interesting way to decide on where to build. Also with a project the size of a town the community can engage a number of contractors and have them bid on the project via the VR portal. In this evolving landscape, asset tracking becomes a vital tool, allowing project managers to monitor and manage the vast array of resources needed for such a massive undertaking. By integrating asset tracking systems into the VR platform, they can ensure that every piece of equipment and material is accounted for, enhancing efficiency and reducing the risk of project delays.

How will digital towns and cities become physical?

The next step is turning “bytes into atoms” as Balaji puts it. This is a complicated step and there are a few ways it could happen. His thesis is with the increasingly weaker government on a local and a federal level communities already have been self organising.

One of the ways it could happen is through self-organized communities providing better and more efficient public utilities than the government. In this model, a city or town exists but a group forms to build apps and digital services that connect to real-world services. Be they warning systems, healthcare, community insurance, emergency aid, or other services. These digital apps would replace the local government's own infrastructure and the founder of the app could transition to being the elected mayor, using their system in place of the older under or undeveloped digital ecosystem. An example of this is Puerto Rico during Maria. The federal government did very little to help Puerto Ricans but local communities popped up to house, feed, and provide services to people. Local programmers designed apps to help the community organise, share resources, and fundraise to rebuild.

The other is the purely digital route, where an influencer serves as the town's founder and a community congeals around them. This pathway creates a solely digital or cloud community first. The community would then plan and agree on a site to build and crowdfund and develop the town.

How do these towns become nations?

Overcoming state and federal laws to design a tax, penal, commercial, and legal code that allows stem cell research or legalizes certain drugs will be incredibly difficult. De-harmonizing (that is not following existing US legal codes) is the challenge with the biggest societal and technological rewards. Crypto does provide an example that at least in part it’s possible. Bitcoin fundamentally challenges the concept and regulation of money and even though regulation has hit crypto and more is incoming, nothing has stopped its march. Balaji believes the way towards self-governed states and cities is around social consensus in a large enough territory. This does exist on a state level already, states define drug laws and abortion laws and with strong enough consensus could push even harder. It is even more prevalent on a national level, for example, heroin is legal in Switzerland and Portugal has decriminalized most drugs.

The concept of digital towns, cities, and countries is radical. As radical if not more than digital currencies. Although not crazy, in Israel the concept has worked well for decades in the form of the Kibbutz. In India, a town called Auroville was founded in the ’60s (although the town designed for 50,000 residents has only 2814 and its administration was taken over by the local government.)They face steep challenges, regulatory and financial being the main hurdles. How will digital towns raise taxes to cover utilities in states where they cannot control how that state taxes them? How will digital cities regulate abortion when on a federal level Roe v Wade has been struck down? How will digital towns raise the immense sums to build? These are all unanswered questions but arguably in 2005, we’d have the same questions about a decentralised global currency.

Alex started Clara a site to compare fintech apps to help people and businesses understand all the new money-saving tools that are revolutionizing finance. They love to write for us, travel and connect with new people. 

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