I headed to Rio de Janeiro last week for the Global Economic Symposium, with the opening paragraphs of a new book in my head. The (2013) follow-on from Citizen Renaissance is set to examine the rise of City States in the Twenty First Century, just as their namesakes had originally blossomed in the Fifteenth. With echoes of flourishing civic pride and citizen values in the quattrocento, the thesis will explore the rise of the new City States – of London, Frankfurt, Singapore, Luanda, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai (for example) – as the sun continues to set on nation states, and certainly on empire, elsewhere. The economics are already directional – from established thirty-year plans to the threatened erection of protectionist defences against perceived economic invaders. Moreover, in a hyper-networked world, citizens of these states are more likely to find commonality and shared interests trans-nationally, than they are among those with whom they would otherwise sing their national anthem. It is no coincidence that the legendary Silvio Berlusconi chose Forza Italia as the name of his political movement, understanding that sometimes only football can unify, while truly local considerations divide and atomise, but ultimately identify, peoples.

I remember seeing a brilliant TED talk by Paul Romer on why Guantanamo could be the next Singapore (connectivity is key, in case you’re wondering) and have been thinking on his idea of Charter Cities for a while. I have also discussed the concept at length with my Edelman colleague Nick Barron, considering both hyper-localism and trans-national communities of shared interests. For me, they are part of the same, exploratory process. At the GES, my interest was spurred further still by former Dutch Premier Wim Kok’s elegant call for a compassionate focus on ‘shared society’ and from a questioner from the floor who pointed out that the Revenues of Korean giant LG now outstrip the entire GDP of, say, Argentina. In fact, according to a 2011 Business Insider survey, WalMart (disclosure: Edelman client) would rank 25th in the table of the GDP of nation states, out-stripping 157 other countries. Nike – on these terms – is bigger than Paraguay; Amazon larger than Kenya; Cisco out-sizes Lebanon.

‘Business in the future’, argued Kok, ‘ will not be the same as business in the past’. But then neither will our cities. ‘We need to move from more to better’, he continued. Shared Societies – where city and business agendas will inevitably collide – also seem to make a lot of sense in the context of Trust: here, the big estates of government, business, NGOs and media find confluence, each with issues of active citizenship at their centre. Where shared interests coalesce, so shared societies can advance. Professor Dennis Snower’s call for a ‘more caring, more compassionate world’ finds resonance here. Public Engagement therefore progresses from its current position of advancing Shared Interests, to a future one of embracing Shared Society.

In his seminal mid-1990s work, The State We’re In Will Hutton called the stakeholder society, helping give birth – in the UK at least – to the cornerstone philosophy of New Labour along the way. States of the Future might now be considered three ways: as nations (great for sporting occasions and as an occasional excuse for monarchy); as cities (economic powerhouses); and as businesses. The latter two are perhaps best-placed to drive societal transformation through active citizenship and public engagement. As Wim Kok pointed out, while arguing against GDP growth as the ultimate end-goal: ‘global answers should be more than the sum of national answers’. We need to think smarter and beyond reductive, national solutions.

Kok’s wider analysis of business may of course be little more than a simplistic, self-evident truth, not least because of the huge reforming power of the Social Digital movement (which was discussed in detail during a GES panel debate in which I participated, chaired by Computer Weekly’s Bryan Glick. But, again and again over the two days of the conference, themes of citizenship and society, empowerment and democracy, ‘caring’ and responsibility were inter-woven within an intricate tapestry of today’s world condition (or at least the remedies for its recovery). In his conference summary, Booz & Co’s Shurmeet Banerji – despite being a self-proclaimed Social Digital sceptic – said that it all boiled down to ‘a real need for active citizenship’. Yes, indeed. But this active citizenship is most likely to flourish in the City States and indeed the Business States of the future.

The social power of business is, of course, not new news and has been discussed in Citizen Renaissance posts passim. The Tata family of India or the heirs to Lord Lever would argue that social responsibility – well beyond the tick-box compliance of ‘CSR’ – is in their corporate DNA. Business States can become a reforming force for good. The modern world will only accelerate their role and this transformation. Global businesses are more efficient; have better management; wider and more fluent geographical footprints; more marketing dollars; and, most fundamentally, an army of engaged employees and Social Advocists that they can reach and mobilise within networks. As the saying goes – if the will is there, businesses can get shit done. Likewise, City States of the future will construct themselves as Businesses (or maybe just like Singapore), just as it works vice versa. Hence the mid- and longer-term planning; the active engagement of citizens (/employees); the determination to balance purpose and profit; diversification away from carbon-fuelled economies; the pursuit of wellbeing, and not just GDP growth; and, as Bill Gates said recently, the use of ‘strategic philanthropy’. Both City and Business States will embody the ‘hourglass’ pyramid of authority, as it would be naive to see a world that is entirely bottom-up, just as it would be anachronistic to believe in the continuity of top-down, controlling elites. Social progress denies this.

Business States and City States thus have much in common within a citizen-centric, shared society. To quote Kok again: ‘Shared Societies (are) where all individuals share a common capacity to participate economically, politically and socially…..(and) democracy is where diversity flourishes most. Democracy ensures accountability to citizens and supports collaboration across countries’. These words hold true both for the state of cities and the state of business.
Democracy remains, for many, the axiomatic outcome of a properly digital society. This, of course, may remain an optimistic view. Cautionary notes – against excess – should be aired. The Business and City States of the future must be those that espouse values-led leadership – and do not find grim excuses to avoid and evade true responsibilities and a proper accountability to we, the people. Compliance is not enough. The effective centralising of economic and social power within fewer, smaller unitary forces could likewise give understandable cause for concern.

There are only early thoughts. The City and Business State We’re In – as a follow-up to Citizen Renaissance – is only in its formative stages. In the week that I received the accolade of an Honorary Professorship (of Public Relations, in the Institute of Management) at City University, London, I find a new conviction around this purview on business and society. City States and Business States do indeed demand more thought and more writing. I hope my new colleagues at Cass Business School – and indeed the wider student community – can become part of a collaborative framework to make it real.

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