The Canary is Singing
The 85th United States Conference of Mayors’ annual meeting was sponsored, without a hint of irony, by Airbnb. As the leaders of over 300 cities across the country moved briskly from one conference room to another to hear about smart cities, resiliency programs and other issues, the logo of the home-sharing company splashed on every roll-up banner in the north wing of the Fontainebleau Hotel might have been the proverbial canary in the coal mine.
The last time the Mayors’ Conference was held here in Miami Beach, the President of the United States addressed the conference via telephone, reiterating the objectives he had laid out in a special message for Congress only a month earlier, outlining his vision for a comprehensive transportation policy. John F. Kennedy called for a more coordinated federal strategy to tackle the obsolete patchwork of transportation systems nationwide and made emphasis on the drastic revisions he wanted to see on the matter urban transit, in particular.
Urban economies in the 1960’s, when Kennedy made these pronouncements, were drawn along a static geographical pattern in which the downtown and adjoining areas functioned as the centers of business and commerce, while employees traveled every morning into these areas from their homes in the suburbs. In the same decade, Alvin Toffler began research on “Future Shock”, the first of several predictive books that explored the world of tomorrow. In it, he foretold the coming of the ‘ad hoc’ society composed of a ‘modular’, hyper-adaptive, technologically driven semi-nomadic people. Like many futurists, he paints a seductive and exaggerated picture complete with ocean-floor condos and moonlighting astronauts. But, in general, the former associate editor of Fortune magazine, largely hit the nail on the head as far as the trends now emerging in the so-called sharing economy.
Uber, which also had a presence at the conference, has practically summoned Toffler’s ‘modular’ man into existence. The ride-sharing application has hopelessly disrupted the enduring and lucrative marriage between taxis and municipal governments, to the largely greater detriment – in the short term – of the taxi drivers. But, city governments should not rest on their laurels because the future is coming for everyone.
Talk About the Weather
This year’s host city was not chosen for its beautiful beaches and palm trees, despite having these in abundance. Miami Beach was chosen because it is ground zero for climate change in North America and those same beaches and palm trees are in danger of disappearing altogether. Over his tenure as Mayor of one of the country’s most desirable destinations, Philip Levine, has had to implement drastic measures to literally pump water out of the streets of South Beach when a phenomenon known as king tides brings the ocean right to residents’ doorsteps. Miami-Dade County, along with three other counties in South Florida, have already begun to share hydrological data on the rate of sea level rise and have even gone as far as drafting a joint evacuation plan in preparation for a worst case scenario where tens or hundreds of thousands of people are forced inland by rising waters.
Likewise, the person chosen to succeed Oklahoma City Mayor, Mick Cornett, at the helm of the USCM was no accident. New Orleans is, without a doubt, the American coastal city most affected by the ravages of natural and man-made disasters in recent memory. Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill happened a mere five years apart. Mitchell J. Landrieu found himself in between the federal and municipal governments when the levees broke. As Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana during Katrina, he saw firsthand the bottleneck created by inefficient communication and poor logistical networks that resulted in the unnecessary suffering of countless people. In 2010, he won the Mayor’s seat for New Orleans on the heels of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
The Mayors made climate change the central agenda of their 4-day long annual meeting event, unanimously challenging the White House and its exit from the Paris Accords. The message was further buttressed by former President Clinton, who spoke for nearly an hour at the Livability Awards Luncheon, where Mitch Landrieu would be officially named as the next president of the USCM.
A Prefect Storm
The confluence of climate change events and proliferation of smart technology will result in an unprecedented state of affairs. On the one hand, incremental changes in weather patterns and/or topography are a phenomenon that can only be addressed at a local level by local authorities who can properly judge the impact and offer real solutions. At the same time, the rise of big data, smart tech and the Internet of things will place extraordinary real-time knowledge resources in the hands of urban leaders, who will be able to react more swiftly than ever before to any changing circumstance.
As these factors become more and more relevant, cities become more self-sufficient and federal entities lose clout. Add the emergence of crypto-currencies and other alternatives to money and suddenly the idea of centralized government seems passé. Information technology is revolutionizing the way resources are allocated. The ability to have a precise and accurate accounting of resources, infrastructure and logistical information coupled with the power to direct and deploy whatever is needed instantaneously is both a boon for concentrated population centers and an existential threat to present-day forms of government.
Mayors are, perhaps, the only ones in position to take advantage of the incipient shift if they understand how their role must change from a conduit of federal or state largesse to advocates of independent, free citizens. A return to a 21st century version of the city-states of the Renaissance is not only possible, but it is practically inevitable. The former Mayor of New York City, whose net worth is nearly fifteen times that of Donald Trump, unveiled a multi-million-dollar program at the Mayor’s conference to help cities implement unique projects and promote themselves at a national level.
The Secret World War
The pushback against the huge, centralized bureaucracy by the abundance of massively wealthy individuals like Bloomberg is leading to the inexorable dissolution of the state. A secret war has been going on for decades now between the very rich and the most powerful nations.
The accumulation of wealth by individuals and corporations through so-called tax havens has greatly diminished the power of the state, which cannot collect its pound of flesh from those whom they now tepidly define as “non-state actors”. In addition, states must now deal with the fact that many roles traditionally reserved for them are being assumed by these entities. Among the most worrisome are the increase in mercenary firms like the infamous Blackwater (now Academi), which rent fully equipped armies on the open market.
In times like these, Mayors and city leaders must recognize and adapt to the changing rules and make sure the trash still gets picked up, the water stays clean and the trains run on time. In this sense, the election of Donald Trump can yet prove to be a blessing in disguise as it signals to those called to lead our communities that relying on the state is a losing proposition. The greater the involvement of municipal governments with the people they serve, the stronger those communities become. With the commitments made towards clean energy and attention given to the issues around how climate change is affecting cities around the country, the 85th United States Conference of Mayors was a positive step towards more independent local leadership.