New intellectual ventures

Having a little more mental space –a major paper on the Robson Reports is currently under review with an academic journal and work is still in summer mode– I have had some time to think about new potential intellectual ventures, or “future ideas”, as this category on the blog is called.

Among the ones that I have tentatively explored over the past weeks has been a more thorough deep dive into the life of Benjamin Polk, the architect of the Tripitaka Library in Yangon. While he and his wife Emily had not left any direct descendants, I managed to speak to one of their nieces and nephews over the past weeks, learning more about the couple’s fascinating life.

I have written about the Polks on this blog and elsewhere and generally relied on publicly available sources as well as their publications that I managed to get a hold of via second hand bookstores.

Speaking to his family expanded the view on their lives significantly. Contrary to his partner Joseph Allen Stein, another American expat building in post-independence India, Benjamin Polk’s architectural legacy is not nearly as established, but in my mind undeservedly so.

The library in Yangon is but one example of his trademark “regional modernism”, in fact I would argue that he was one of the concept’s pioneers who also articulated it very clearly in his writings from back then. Contrary to Stein, though, Polk left India after just one decade, not long enough to firmly cement himself in the canon of architectural history –although again, there are some records of him and discussions of his work.

It was amazing to hear his nephew retell a trip he took to India with his daughter to find the family heritage in the built environment. The life story of the Polks is one of an inspiring peripatetic couple visiting fascinating places, meeting fascinating people at fascinating times.

I wonder what can come out of this research –I am currently planning to pen one journal article for an architectural history publication, focusing on the Yangon library. A much bigger project on Polk’s legacy in India is time-consuming but potentially much more rewarding.

One of the angles I thought of in particular refers to the links to “vernacular” and “tropical” architecture many of these 1950s Western architects were exploring in the “Global South” (lots of quotation marks in this text as usual…).

In these pre-AC days, there was a real interest in building climate-consciously. There was also a great push for nation building projects: housing huge swathes of displaced people in planned settlements. A lot went wrong and succumbed to planning blunders and unrealistic aspirations.

But a lot of knowledge was gathered which today almost seems lost again. Take social housing, not only in developing countries, where municipalities lack not only the means but especially the expertise to emerge as a big player in the large-scale provision of shelter, leaving it to the vagaries of the private sector.

The future will require a more thorough exploration of this past knowledge as millions of people will have to move in more climate-proof habitats.

This brings me to another preoccupation of the last few days, i.e., that of “resettlement cities”. I haven’t fully digested the literature (and the science fiction) on the topic yet, but I am intrigued by the discourse on how to resettle millions of predicted climate refugees into more temperate zones, and how to manage the great “migration” that is to unfold over the coming decades.

Looking at future maps, few places in the world will become more habitable, but the northern hemisphere will see large swaths of land become arable and potentially “urbanizable”, e.g., in northern Canada.

When at the EBRD, we explored a project with a pulse grower based out of Saskatchewan who wanted to expand to Eastern Europe. A marginal crop, the frontier for lentils is pushed further north as temperatures rise.

A significant part of the world’s nutritional needs might derive from this peripheral protein production. Large cities could also be built here, housing millions of people displaced due to extreme weather elsewhere.

How can one organize and plan for such an unprecedented wave of migration? “Charter cities” are one popular concept. Generally credited to former World Bank Chief Economist and Nobel laureate Paul Romer, a charter city is a special jurisdiction for new urban centers.

Needless to say, the idea rightfully got a lot of flak, as did Romer’s subsequent visions on addressing the refugee crisis in Europe (by creating immigrant-only zones, e.g., in Sweden). For a speculative fiction take on this, Mosin Hamid’s Exit West is an exceptional book.

To cut the story short, my research percolated across a few different layers. I began by trying to find whether some architecture / urban studies departments had begun visualizing these new spaces in the climatically more friendly north, e.g., in Canada.

While the search continues, I found relatively little except this project at the University of Western Australia on “Refuge Cities”, “new kind of cities for our times”. Ironically, the model city is simulated as being located on the Australian northern shores, perhaps not the most resilient zone several decades down the line.

Nonetheless, a lot of thinking went into this “Refuge City” from an urban design point of view; too much to digest in such a short blog post (I hope to delve more deeply into this at some point). The governance model of these new urban agglomerations housing refugees is, unsurprisingly, that of a charter city.

From here, I learnt about the Charter Cities Institute, an NGO based out of DC with the mission to advance the cause of charter cities in developing countries by helping governments establish the institutional and legislative background. It is led by a young team of researchers and activists. While not entirely transparent, some of its funding appears to come from libertarian philanthropical circles.

The intellectual kinship to the RadicalxChange community is obvious in the institute’s publications. I have not been able to devote much time and intellectual energy, but my initial attempt to classify these circles is that they are understanding social processes with the same tools and methods with which they are analyzing technology.

This makes sense judging from the movement’s main thinkers and donors, e.g., Ethereum prodigy Vitalik Buterin. At the risk of oversimplifying things here, it appears to me that life’s problems are seen as requiring hacks, nudges, and technological solutions to make markets more efficient, yes, even more egalitarian, and human behavior more sustainable.

(Emblematic of such a liberal response to the world’s problems, Effective Altruism spiritus rector William MacAskill says that getting rid of capitalism is not among his top-20 priorities –I think that came from an FT interview with him a few days back. What we need are new “social technologies” for today’s challenges, in their opinion.)

However, structural inequalities are not easily done away by technocratic fixes. These young modern liberals are sidestepping these questions because they remain nested in a neoliberal worldview. You will not be surprised to hear that you can invest in charter cities. I am sure that private sector companies will plan and build them.

So yes, the system is broken (we agree), but let’s fix it and not replace it, and not ask uncomfortable questions about power structures along the way. We can also offload some of the thornier issues to markets, e.g. intergenerational inequality (look at the Liberman twins’ ideas on selling shares in yourself to access part of your future earning potential now).

One cynical yet interesting analogy to all this is VC fund Andreessen Horowitz evangelizing for the power of decentralization and democratization in Web3 (being long crypto) while having made tons of money from Web 2.0 and its associated monopolization. This was brought home to me by the FT’s crypto sceptic Jemima Kelly.

There must be coherent critical takes on this broad intellectual movement –the fact that they command a significant heft with young tech philanthropy funds behind them necessitates this. I will keep reading widely.

(I crossed paths with Evgeny Morozov in the past when he was at the early stages of his journey to becoming a big public intellectual –for the lack of a better word (I also crossed paths with Parag Khanna once, and took some voyeuristic pleasure out of reading this review). Morozov’s verdicts stand on more solid feet than my armchair explorations can ever yield, but in his long essay on techno-feudalism, he put Glen Weyl and the rising intellectual class of this new liberalism in the corner of those who espouse markets unfettered by traditional politics, and I detect a dismissive undertone in his writing, reassuring me in the above. Besides the name dropping, the link to the essay is important as it shows me how far out of my depth I am in all this, and how fascinating this topic is.)

To return to the techno neoliberals, Weyl’s Radical Markets is the go-to point for the movement’s intellectual foundations. It was generally well reviewed and introduces several concepts that have been taken onboard by RadicalxChange researchers and trickled down to the Charter Cities and related manifestos. They include quadratic voting and finance (essentially a weighted vote using artificial currency to strengthen convictions on one’s voting or financing decisions) as well as innovative auction processes to avoid known market failures.

Weyl himself got back to a lot of the methodological and more general criticism in his essay on “why I am not a market radical”. I need to read the original works more carefully to avoid building up strawmen here.

But to return to the outset of the post, my own personal intellectual venture might be to connect some of the threads in this post by thinking about new cities from a historical perspective. A better understanding of the past might inform the discourse on climate resettlement more than techno-utopian libertarianism and charter cities.

The failures of the past might have been largely political, but that does not mean that the solution to our future problems lies in factoring out politics from our decision making, or by tweaking market and social processes as if they were technological problems.

I do not want to dismiss outright the creative and intellectual power of these movements’ thinkers. A critical dialogue and eagerness to learn is good for any debate. It might also up the game for reading lists such as this one, especially if the movement were to become more influential (and consequential) in the future.

The connection to Benjamin Polk is a little long-winded (it is intentionally so, as I wanted to “hide” this post behind a more familiar and self confident front). However, there are some useful thoughts here. The South Asia Polk built in saw large-scale resettlements to newly-built cities amid momentous political and social change, attempts to build climate-conscious architecture, and architects trying to reference the place and its culture, embodying identity and putting the users at its heart.

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