No Hard Reset: Against the Crypto Utopia

Are flashy renderings of speculative crypto cities blinding us from seeing blockchain urbanism’s human-scale potential?

Text Alice Bucknell
Published 05 Oct 2022

As urban growth continues to explode, with nearly three-quarters of the global population projected to live in cities by 2050, the idea of “blockchain urbanism”—or the implementation of blockchain technologies into urban planning and development—has become a hot topic hyped by both UN research groups and idealistic crypto city states alike. Folded into the smart city movement, blockchain urbanism offers the promise of more efficient, sustainable, and responsive cities that are capable of addressing the increasing economic, environmental, and governmental stress factors that define the present. The blockchain city is a technoutopian vision of the future where urban infrastructure is automated, utilities and electricity resources are exchanged on a P2P network, medical services are streamlined, and policymaking is organized through a distributed consensus network. The only problem? Beyond starchitect-studded master plans and crypto-bro TED talks, nobody really knows what it looks like yet.

Fully Automated Blockchain Utopias

A monument unfurls across New York City. It slinks across the Hudson, shoots over the Grand Canyon, and slices up desert plains, oceans, and lakes, occasionally cradling highways in the crook of its bend. In some places, its surface is coated in a seamless infinite grid; at others, its mirrored finish reflects puffy clouds floating languidly overhead. Conceived in the late 1960s by speculative architecture collective Superstudio, Continuous Monument was a hyperbolic vision of an all-consuming architecture of globalization. Responding to the cultural mood of imminent apocalypse, Superstudio’s Monument was intended as a tongue-in-cheek critique of an unchecked and ultra-homogenized brand of urban development. Six decades on, and in the midst of a similar downward spiral, the speculative project has become an unironic reference point for the crypto city state designers of the 21st century.

The Continuous Monument finds an uncanny doppelgänger in Saudi Arabia’s planned mega-city NEOM (a portmanteau of the Greek word for “new” and the Arabic for “future”), whose high-tech center, a 100-mile-long “linear city” appropriately branded The Line, was revealed earlier this summer. Trumpeted as a “civilizational revolution” by Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the $1 trillion city in the desert will house some nine million people in its razor-thin, greenery-stuffed, mirror-coated expanse. NEOM was designed to blend into its desert surroundings as a minimum footprint “protection and enhancement” of nature—a loose framing that allows for several glow-in-the-dark beaches and an artificial moon.

The Line. Via:

The city will be governed by an autonomous legal and judiciary system drafted up by investors and set to work on the blockchain. Residents of The Line will also be able to market and sell their data as its own asset, while virtual property purchased in NEOM’s own metaverse platform will trigger the construction of an IRL body double. The city claims it will be entirely powered by renewable energy, a reflection of the country’s plans to wean itself off oil by 2030. Although marketing campaigns slate its completion date for 2025, recent satellite imagery of NEOM’s current development progress is sparse by comparison—little exists beyond a sprawling golf course and helipad.

Despite the sci-fi-soaked speculation underpinning these crypto cities, blockchain urbanism pitches itself as the answer to virtually any problem facing real urban environments—its “solution” stemming largely from image over application. Some of these crypto city states, like NEOM, seek to literally dissolve into the landscape by confining their human presence between the slivers of a mirrored facade; others, like Chengdu Smart City in China and BiodiverCity in Malaysia, aim to complement the landscape as it morphs at the hands of climate change. Rolled out by global starchitects OMA and Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), these cities signal their green status through biophilic master plans of seasteads shaped like lilypads and buildings that undulate like terraced rice fields. Others pay tribute to the tech that theoretically underpins them: Telosa, another BIG project, unfurls across 150,000 acres of Southwest US desert in the shape of a gigantic motherboard, while Bitcoin City, nestled into the base of a volcano in El Salvador (from which it draws its mining power), is shaped like a gigantic cryptocoin. Merging ecological flourish with a high-tech skeleton, these crypto utopias posit a seamless integration of nature and technology as the ultimate salvation from an apocalyptic present.

The “city in the desert” fantasy hawked by many crypto-utopias is not new—one can draw a clear line between Telosa’s Garden City-inspired walkable urban plan and the New Urbanism roots of Arcosanti, a terminally-incomplete city in the Sonoran Desert established in the 1970s that aims to be entirely self-sufficient and trades in its own currency (cast bronze bells). With fears that leading coastal cities like London and New York will be partially underwater in the coming decades due to climate change, the endless expanse of the desert is hyped as the next frontier for human civilization. But who is pedaling this apocalyptic narrative, and to what end? As historian Diana K. Davis notes in The Arid Lands, the image of the desert as an inhospitable wasteland ripe for recultivating and greenifying is a colonial fantasy conjured time after time by Westerners.

BiodiverCity. Courtesy Bjarke Ingels Group

Across the design frameworks of these crypto utopias, their cultural hermeticism and unbridled faith in technology as civilization’s saving grace mirrors the attitude and aesthetic of Silicon Valley’s mega-campuses, which also see themselves as the center of their own universes. As an obvious beacon of high-spec greenwashing, the contemporary tech campus is conceived as a hypernatural Garden of Eden sporting solar panels, circular rainwater systems, and wildlife conservatories. The points of overlap with crypto city states run rife: take, for instance, NEOM’s plans to cultivate a desert arboretum within its walled utopia, and Apple’s resurrection of a pre-human Californian ecology in the enclosed green space of its ring-shaped, Norman Foster-designed Cupertino HQ.

Beyond the souped-up tech campus, another aesthetic reaches its tendrils into blockchain urbanism: Solarpunk, which has its origins in the 2008 blogosphere and peaked online in the mid-2010s. It attempts to distance itself from the technosolutionism of Silicon Valley culture while rejecting the dystopian doomer direction of 21st-century sci-fi and cli-fi (climate-fiction) narratives. A focus on sustainable technology, typically of the handmade and grassroots variety, runs rife in the solarpunk subcultural imaginary: think stained-glass solar panels, leafy-green stacked metropolises with DIY wifi meshes, and the gangly architectural protagonist of Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl's Moving Castle. Self-described solarpunk “researcher-at-large” Adam Flynn suggests that solarpunk roots itself in “infrastructure as a form of resistance.” Put another way, solarpunk dreams of a more ecological, optimistic urbanism that diverges sharply from the linear crash course of contemporary capitalism.

Like many internet creations, solarpunk coined its aesthetic before it consolidated its politics. In that sense, it is a malleable, pervasive vibe that is at home in an anarchist bell-selling utopian commune as a tax-dodging libertarian seastead. But unlike the crypto city-state, which always exists in the future-speculative, solarpunk is cut through with a DIY approach that incentivizes application: many of the Tumblr posts, Reddit threads, discord channels, and blog entries on the mothership offer up recipes and step-by-step instructions to solarpunk the cities we already inhabit. Its principles of DIY tech, grassroots collaboration, and decentralized living systems that exist in harmony with nature pitch an eco-positive mantra that does not see technology as an end-all-be-all solution to the climate crisis. It’s the humans in the mix, and their messy politics, that will steer this moving castle.

Telosa. Courtesy Telosa

Towards a Theory of Onchain Urbanism

Since pseudonymous blockchain inventor Satoshi Nakamoto first published the Bitcoin Whitepaper at the height of the 2008 financial crisis, cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies more broadly have been criticized as a solution in search of a problem. A similar hot take could be made against blockchain urbanism’s idealization of technology as a silver bullet capable of fixing any problem. As Charles Shen and Feniosky Pena-Mora suggest in their 2018 paper “Blockchain for Cities—A Systematic Literature Review,” there is “a severe gap between the blockchain knowledge that we have and the actions urban policymakers are taking.” Put another way, there are few persuasive examples of blockchain technology being used effectively at a city-wide scale, because the conversation tends to dissolve into a general sense of possibility; the most convincing theory-to-praxis pipeline occurs in localized, bottom-up initiatives. Moreover, blockchain technology by itself will not automatically level-up a city or improve urban life—that change requires a political understanding of these technologies and a holistic implementation that engages residents in the process.

In their study, Shen and Pena-Mora argue that blockchain technologies are folded into the key information and communication technologies that underpin smart cities. Put another way, most concepts pitched by the smart city movement (which is expected to be a two trillion dollar market by 2024), such as decentralized data storage, encrypted voting, virtual healthcare, P2P resource exchange, and smart traffic systems, would rely on blockchain protocols to function. Within the sustainable and smart city assessment framework referenced by Shen and Pena-Mora, there are sixteen overlapping categories including governance and citizen engagement, well-being, health, and safety, energy, transportation, and the built and natural environment. In their version of blockchain urbanism, the same interconnectedness is part of its architecture—encrypted information needs to be able to pass from one sector to another in order for the system to run efficiently. A white paper on smart cities released by Japan’s cabinet office in 2020 extends this idea, emphasizing blockchain urbanism as an intraoperative technology that allows for cooperation among multiple smart cities.

The lone ranger mentality of flashy crypto utopias runs counter to these ideas of interoperation and collaboration. Many of these speculative cities hype the anonymity and independence from any centralized government that blockchain affords, without acknowledging its capacity as a collaborative city-making tool. Like other technologies, blockchain urbanism cannot replace the fundamentals of urban development, which is to say a human-centered approach. Without the social integration of this technology across all sectors, it’s not a city: it’s just a solution in search of a problem.

Mixed-Reality Cities

In 2012, Estonia became the first country to adopt a blockchain-based digital governance system called e-Estonia; since then, it has expanded the protocols of KSI, its home-grown chain, to include healthcare services, voting, filing taxes, and transportation infrastructure, effectively digitizing 99% of its public services. Estonia’s prescient digital pivot in 1997 has been followed by many other countries including Australia, China, UAE, UK, Switzerland, Singapore, and the US, who are hoping to introduce blockchain protocols into their own urban planning and policy. I refer to these existing cities that are hoping to move part or all of their urban planning and policy onchain as “mixed-reality” cities.

Mixed-reality cities are scalable. The strongest integrations of blockchain theory with practical application occur as localized initiatives such as the Brooklyn Microgrid (BMG), which is an onchain P2P solar energy marketplace for locally generated energy. New York City residents can sell their excess solar energy to nearby neighbors, thereby financing the installation of additional panels. The project intends to bypass electricity companies and ultimately lead to a national microgrid system. It’s cost-effective, self-financed, and avoids the waste associated with centrally-produced and distributed power. And, as the solarpunks would want it, Brooklyn Microgrid is great for community-building.

When implemented as city-wide megaprojects rather than scalable protocols, mixed-reality cities tend to veer into the libertarian terrain of crypto utopianism. Dubai is currently building Metaverse Dubai, a digital twin for the city that is to serve as its new civic, financial, and cultural center. Others are spinning public services into the realm of speculative finance. Launched in 2021, MiamiCoin’s jargon-filled press release hyped the currency as a way to “unlock a new community-driven revenue stream for local governments while bringing collaborative technology to its citizens and ecosystem of stakeholders.” In short, MiamiCoin is a blockchain-based gambling system outsourced to anonymous miners and stakers (who don’t need to live in Miami, or have any connection to it beyond a desire to make money), aimed at creating revenue for both its crypto-investors and Miami’s municipal government, who split the profits 70/30. The Magic City’s crypto-pilled Mayor Suarez claimed the system could one day replace taxes. In the face of a grim climate forecast that could see Miami underwater in a matter of decades, the so-called Silicon Swamp is seemingly piling all of its resources into making itself an attractive new host for fintech companies instead of funding new climate change infrastructure. (In the metaverse, no one knows you’re underwater.)

CityCoin infographic. Via:

MiamiCoin and Metaverse Dubai concede to crypto’s worst side as a tool of speculation that emphasizes individual profit over collective agency. These proposals ultimately pedal a neoliberal agenda that focuses on technological bells and whistles over the new models of urban development and governance that blockchain could help facilitate. Both initiatives reflect a broader impulse in blockchain urbanism to treat the technology as a blanket solution rather than a collaborative tool for reconfiguring specific areas of urban life.

At the moment, a clear divide exists between crypto-anarchists and crypto-institutionalists, which can be seen across the differing blockchain architectures of the speculative crypto city state and that of the mixed-reality city. The majority of speculative crypto cities, as well as IRL applications like MiamiCoin and Metaverse Dubai, hype the ideal of permissionless blockchains; doing away with the need for centralized governance or elected representatives, this protocol reflects their broader libertarian ideologies. By bringing traditional forms of urban governance onchain with private protocols, e-Estonia enforces an opposite but equally totalizing approach: here, blockchain is a new architecture for pre-existing power structures. Against this chaotic-evil, lawful-evil binary, there is a third way becoming apparent in the smaller-scale, sector-specific, and community-led initiatives like Brooklyn Microgrid. This vision for blockchain urbanism resists the frontier mentality of crypto utopianism while proposing a new form of onchain urban governance that’s rooted in the community of its human users.

No New Cities, Just New Protocols

There is an unavoidable paradox to blockchain urbanism. This problem exists across the spectrum from speculative crypto utopias to the more banal work of moving an existing city’s sluggish infrastructure onchain. It lives inside the very nature of blockchain technology, which was designed from the Hobbesian worldview that humans are corruptible, selfish creatures; the distributed ledger architecture of blockchain is, as Nakamoto says in their original whitepaper, “a system built with the assumption that no person, authority, or institution can be trusted.” So how can a technology built upon a misanthropic worldview glide us seamlessly into the utopian cities of tomorrow?

As technologist Xioawei Wang writes in Blockchain Chicken Farm: “Instead of designing technology that fosters and cultivates communal behaviors of trust, we still design technology that assumes scarcity and selfishness… This coercive design relies on a fictional view of humanity that has been disproved over and over.” In that sense, both the fabled crypto utopia and successful case studies of mixed-reality cities are caught in the same bind: their architecture assumes a lack of trust amongst citizens and governments, with either the full transparency of public chains or the tougher security of private chains pitching to solve the perma-problem of trustlessness. This paradigm is the very inverse of the human-centric approach to urban design that was championed more than half a century ago by Jane Jacobs: that the social life of a city is its magic circle; that trust grows organically and intraoperatively; that community-building is a political act. Relying on technology to automate the commons could end up leading us further and further away from this reconciliation point.

Blockchain urbanism may herald a future in which we are eclipsed by our data, with the crypto city further alienating its residents from each other through the ease of an anonymous arbiter. Observing the spectrum of speculative crypto city states to mixed-reality blockchain cities, it becomes clear that advanced technologies should never serve as a stand-in for the ideal city; they should only help us in bringing that ideal to life. (An ideal that is unlikely to be conjured up from scratch out in the desert.)

In staking out this future, we should take great care to separate its possible social and political structures from the technology that has come to define them. Decentralization doesn’t necessarily mean blockchain; if solarpunk teaches us anything, it’s that there are other tools out there for developing shared community infrastructures for collaborative survival which may not always come with the smart city PR tag. From smaller-scale, community-led projects like Brooklyn Microgrid, we can see glimpses of a possible onchain urbanism, cast against the woozy projections and false promises of crypto-utopias that pedal an old escapist fantasy in new metaverse clothes. It’s ultimately up to us in whom and what institutions we place our trust: the most valuable currency. If blockchain urbanism is being designed for the wrong systems, then perhaps it’s time to envision alternative protocols.

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