From
Polycrisis
to
the
Smart
Commons

From Polycrisis to the Smart Commons

Our cities have been hollowed out by hyperfinancialization. Can blockchains unlock new ways to own where we live?

Ethereum has gone nearly carbon neutral after the merge. This is a new age for the second-largest cryptocurrency which the community worked on for six years. It’s an impressive feat, which is causing more traditional investors to look again now that the barrier of a carbon-summoning world computer has vanished overnight. Major investment firms found Ethereum’s potential attractive, however, many struggled to seriously consider it as a new fundamental knowing that carbon burning is no longer profitable in the long run. The merge is a long-term change, it should signal a benchmark of maturity, and shouldn’t be seen as a short-term stimulus for the fiat price of the token.

With this green maturity spurt in Ethereum, new bleeding edge areas of potential and real fundamental use cases can begin to emerge. In this terrain, several projects and communities are looking to the collective administration, management, access, and acquisition of property and land, both inside and outside the city. Land, property, and its built assets have been one of the most stable and steadying forms of assets across cultures for ages. It’s my hope that crypto and Ethereum can become a tool to instill these social, financial, and cultural practices of land management with greater diversity, responsiveness, and malleability. The stability provided by the property market has waned since the 2008 credit crash and subprime mortgage crisis. The diversity of the market has been truncated and consolidated in the hands of large volume players who have engineered a truly liquid international trad-fi system that can outprice most local incomes from the cost of owning or renting a home. A local income is no longer sufficient to work towards multi-generational stability and security. This cost of living crisis has swelled the scale of the renter class and locked in generations as feudal workers. Landowners and brokers are likely now receiving more income from most citizens in the West than governments do in terms of taxation (both for property and income taxes). In this fraught terrain, if led with foresight and a commitment to decentralization, crypto can grow up, address serious systemic inequity, and help us build out by providing the financing, planning, and social tools we need to start to unlock the capacity for cities and communities to be built with, for, and by their inhabitants. This is the promise of crypto, and especially Ethereum: to begin to graft the values of its online worlds (distributed trust, decentralization, transparency, scalability) onto physical spaces. How we plan and narrate these endeavors, and how we quantify the results, is what’s going to help determine if the world can be convinced by crypto and Ethereum’s potential as a collaboration tool and value-unlock for complex and interdependent financial systems and public assets.

My own introduction to the crypto space began in Hong Kong in 2017, when I was on a residency with a cultural space called Things that can happen. It was the interim between the Umbrella Revolution and the incoming encroachment of Mainland China’s national security law that crossed the line from one-country two-systems, to one-country one-system. It was a strange time, weird and eerie in the Mark Fisher sense. You could sense it in the air, underwriting every encounter. I was attending crypto meetups while also learning about histories of capital, generational and political shifts, and how a financial and physical exodus from the city state of HK had begun as part of the British colonial project in the 1800s and picked up pace a few decades ago in the 1980s; snowballing into a multi-valent migration that shaped my home city of Vancouver, among many others. An artist I invited to join me from Vancouver, Julian Yi-Zhong Hou, did a beautiful musical and audio performance on the rooftop of Things that can happen, surrounded by the domestic density of the Sham Shui Po neighborhood. Inspired by ancient Chinese court music as survived through Japanese Gagaku, Hou noted several characters for each of the musical registers at play; “Bad Breath, Cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin and Ethereum), and the Smoke that travels between.” This ensemble is an apt metaphor to begin to see where the blockchain can start to connect and create interdependent urban technology stacks: working with some level of opacity from the majority as these new influences begin to adapt and alter our cities.

Three years on into the COVID-19 pandemic, most cities still feel like eerie places. Commercial real estate is blazing hard to legitimize itself, as construction continued at a steady pace during the isolation of quarantines. Co-working, event spaces, and hospitality are still operating at 30% cost increases, while reducing services and staff wages at the same time. The pieces of the city are not going back together as they were. Benjamin Bratton calls this moment in which we must forcibly reckon with the reality of a brutally neglected social sphere, and where governance now becomes a matter of life and death, the “revenge of the real.” It’s affecting our cities in ways that are being addressed by neither government nor trad business leadership. This is the politics of a post-pandemic world. History rears its head and snaps back into play. Russia’s further aggressions into western Ukraine and transformation of Kyiv into a warzone is one of these major moments. This political shift and escalating non-linear war forced the closure of Moscow’s Strelka Institute (the website is no longer live) where Bratton taught and was leading a crucial urban and landscape research program, first under the banner of The New Normal and then The Terraforming. Many proposals for interdependence between technology, design, philosophy, and culture were developing out of this school, especially with the prospect of public distributed ledger technologies and blockchain. One early project from these programs, DOMA, was an insightful apartment-sharing concept, born out of Kyiv, that would leverage the equity between higher property value cities and lower property value cities, to give you the financial trampoline needed to move from rentership towards ownership over time, while allowing you to move between cities as your life took you to new corners of the planet near and far. Now the team behind this project has shifted their practice of architecture and spatial technology development towards the forensic analysis and documentation of the destruction of civilian infrastructure and war crimes. The urgency of the world and the fragility of our systems has given us all pause to get real and ask: how can technology work for us now?

DOMA’s Vancouver affordability heatmap . Via: doma.city/vancouver

Yuk Hui, a contemporary philosopher from Hong Kong, writes on the potential for digital networks to develop new kinds of urban solidarities. He writes, “for such concrete solidarity to emerge, we need a techno-diversity which develops alternative technologies such as new social networks, collaborative tools, and infrastructures of digital institutions that will form the basis for global collaboration.” Hui animates the concept of co-immunity first set out by the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who considers all social associations, from herds to empires, as structures of co-immunity that constitute a group and create a common advantage within it. The evolution of the social in this sense is the reformatting of what is ours in common, and Hui leads us to consider how today’s global co-immunity might be constituted. He continues, “True co-immunity is not abstract solidarity, but rather departs from a concrete solidarity whose co-immunity should ground the next wave of globalization (if there is one). Since the start of this pandemic, there have been countless acts of true solidarity, where it matters greatly who will buy groceries for you if you are not able to go to the supermarket, or who will give you a mask when you need to visit the hospital, or who will offer respirators for saving lives, and so forth.” Hui is calling for new forms of infrastructure that can incentivize, connect and validate those seeking and offering their solidarity.

American Architect Keller Easterling is well known for her book Extrastatecraft (2014), which looked at the power of infrastructural space and how this defines the operating system of the modern world. Her most recent text, Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World (2021) looks at the spaces between things, systems, and actors as an area of agency for designers to intervene. This is an exploratory text that can help our culture move beyond our modern obsession with just naming and classifying things, and towards a future where we can design and help to predict the way things, systems, and actors connect and interact. In the text, Easterling addresses head-on the challenges of land assembly, data, digitization, and remedying gridlocked crises in urban space. She is one of the first academics to consider blockchain as a legitimate design space, albeit so far in a critical and cursory way. Medium Design is a generative early guide to navigating and learning from the complexity of systems in a polycrisis. Keller asks, “in advance of an ideal scheme for seizing the means of production, how can design introduce extra, rival markets—especially spatial markets where value derives from arrangement and other physical attributes apart from finance?” Through the practice of Medium Design, I hope that designers and developers are inspired to work with the lumpy reality of the forking processes of infrastructure and innovation that have given us our cities of today.

A lizard-brained form of medium design applied via blockchain is playing out in Miami. Urban geographer Stephanie Wakefield, with Sarah Molinari and Kevin Gore, recently published an analysis of how crypto-urban statecraft is being elaborated in Miami in the context of post-pandemic urban governance experimentation. They signal Miami as a hotspot for this activity due to a particular confluence of pandemic-induced instability, risk around sea level rise and land loss, and a political climate intent on creating a new financial and technological hub for those who want to operate beyond the confines of both Silicon Valley and Wall Street. The authors note that Miami’s mayor Francis Suarez was the first politician to take his salary in Bitcoin, followed by NYC’s Eric Adams. This civic context has so far produced gimmicky engagements with the technology that have performed precariously with the 2022 bear market; such as the MiamiCoin scheme, as well as city-owned Bitcoin mining operations. But even if the approach has not yet been solidified, the intentions it speaks of are more profound. The city itself, as a governance entity, is searching for ways to become less reliant on land value for revenues via taxation and development levies. With the intensification of heat, drought, hurricanes, fires, sea level rise, and now unmitigated zoonotic disease spread, the city’s geography and biology itself is becoming more violent towards the city’s financial stability and governance. The older models of revenue generation are less reliable. Therefore, an increasingly abstracted financialization of the city as a brand via crypto protocols is what these Miami experiments point towards. However, the wider planetary market needed to ensure these crypto experiments bring in more reliable returns has not yet materialized. The authors conclude, “in this light, the Miami city government’s flirtations with crypto perhaps portend a coming transformation in the urban that decouples municipal governments from the local environments in which they are embedded, and repositions them within an increasingly authoritarian informationalized political economy.” Time will tell if these experiments are a last attempt to squeeze out value for a narrow class from a city in decline, or if they will emerge as a new federated kind of city state, woven together with abstracted financial protocols that come from well beyond the borders of Florida and the US.

Outside of the US, there are projects looking to design crypto urbanism projects with differing ideologies to Miami. FirstLife, a civic social network alongside a related wallet app CommonsHood, is one interesting such project emerging from the University of Turin, Italy. This project is producing several pilots that are testing the early state of citizen engagement and civic work on the blockchain. One such pilot involved a neighborhood house, where people could perform their usual voluntary services (cooking community meals, hosting workshops, sorting donated clothing) and take part in programs, in exchange for tokens. These tokens, which can also be purchased by citizens, can be used to take advantage of other services offered by the neighborhood house or other associations that are part of the network. Professor Claudio Schifanella of the project described in an interview how the learning from the pilot was that most participants who entered as no-coiners struggled to accept the passing of authority from the institution to the smart contract. This social challenge is still a major hurdle for all who are designing projects that allow for real-world assets to be onchain. Another ambitious project designing for this social challenge is Dark Matter Labs (DML), which emanates from London with nodes around the world. Their mission is to generate new “institutional dark matter” for a renewed civic economy, as existing institutions ossify in response to large-scale and interconnected crises. In a recent conversation with the strategic designer Fang-Jui Chang who works with DML, she shared two interesting projects that can help underwrite the conditions for blockchain urbanism. Firstly, DML’s Radicle Civics project is proposing new models to design and generate infrastructure and policy through super-diverse and distributed publics, which challenge concentrations of power and political responsibility. Secondly, DML demonstrated FreeHouseDAO, which was recently part of an architectural exhibition in the UAE. This FreeHouseDAO is imagined as a prototype house that “owns and manages itself,” designed to be both free for habitation and free from trad property markets and their protocols.

Emerging Principles of Radical Civics’ project. Via: radiclecivics.cc

DML has also worked with the team behind DOMA, mentioned above, through the Center for Spatial Technologies (previously based in Kyiv, now distributed). CST co-authored the Smart Commons study, which mapped the ways that private property values were bolstered two to three times over in Manhattan by public investment in the High Line. Through their analysis, this public good venture, a world-renowned park with a vital public art program, became an accelerant on the private property market. Further to this civic scale financial mapping, the CST team are also recently launched a two-year project with the nonprofit I work for in Vancouver, 221A, which is a dashboard showing the rise in cost to access properties on the rental sales markets in our notoriously unaffordable city that has the property values of Palo Alto with the incomes of Columbus, Ohio. These tools and systems that can begin to diagnose and visualize the way that cities became so enclosed and captured by a narrow class are vital to the design of tools and systems that can unlock benefits for the many in the long run. Crypto city DAOs should be supporting the research and public storytelling of this kind of data journalism so we can begin to find where our mass cooperation will have effects at scale. Another kind of group that is designing the meta-level conceptual and policy changes to how blockchain and crypto will influence property and the city, is the RadicalxChange community that has grown from Glen Weyl’s book Radical Markets. Through their investigations of “plural property,” RxC proposes partial common ownership schemes that rewrite the notion of private property altogether, and look at space as a common resource that shouldn’t be hoarded unless you can afford to pay higher taxes to the state.

The complexity of mapping and intervening in the layered problems of our cities seems like the kind of multi-level challenge DAOs might one day be well positioned to address. The immediate DAOs of today are striving to find common purpose and coherence yet still struggle to produce output and impact that is broadly understood and registered. But the DAOs of tomorrow, which could be scaled and operate more efficiently with multiple guilds, might be the kind of structure we need to start diagnosing, redesigning, and collectively governing our cities with a more robust blockchain urbanism. The rental market, again, might be a starting point to assert the power of DAOs given the present conglomeration of rental providers. Smaller and family-owned property management companies are being pushed out of the market due to the rising costs of renovations, property taxes, and labor, as well as greater demand to streamline expenses to maximize profits for shareholders. Larger conglomerates have become the dominant form of rental operator in the formal rental market, and one major new avenue for their revenues will be in-home data capture, now that services like Ring and Alexa are being built into the walls of new rental units. Instead of this dystopian surveillance reality, could we imagine DAOs taking on this role, providing alternate in-home services, and making better and more trusted collective use of data capture to redistribute its knowledge and value to the communities that are supplying it the raw materials of our lives?

Imagining how this unfolds in one city isn’t the picture we should be painting. Instead, let’s look to the recent book The Network State by Balaji Srinivasan, which proposes a conglomeration of actors around the world held together through network participation and maintenance rather than a crypto-powered state or city localized in a specific geography. Through their constituent power, members of these network states can act together, and develop projects that support, gather resources, and align intentions. With this decentralized citizenship, we could start to see these communities operating as a global force, with counterpower to existing liquid international trad-fi capital, should there be crisis or challenges at a particular local level of the network.  A crucial insight in considering the future of blockchain urbanism and crypto cities comes from a recent episode of New Model’s TopSoil podcast stream with a couple of its most notable Discord community members. In discussing projects for intentional communities, both natively digital and those with IRL ambitions, they recognized that often, they have no voice about what to do in the contemporary moment, and so instead speak through the language of exit. But the legitimacy and accessibility of our future cities can’t be built by a monologue of exit discourse, because this leads to erasure (and the continuation) of historical resource discrepancies, power imbalances, and worlds ultimately built on fantasy. The challenge for DAOs today is to break this deadlock, embrace scaling, and find ways to start to map, challenge, and intervene in the systems that keep our cities locked as inaccessible and enclosed spaces. Let’s search for ways to build out from our current state.

I conclude with some short profiles on notable projects that give me encouragement that blockchain urbanism is budding, yes, but still laboring with great intensity to find people-powered agency at scale. The communities behind the majority of these projects have fairly dedicated memberships who think and want to work on long-term scales. I’m keen to follow along and share in their efforts.

Via: citydao.io

  1. Cabin

    Founded by Jon Hillis during the early quarantine days of the pandemic, Cabin signaled a collective ambition to get outside and build anew. The DAO’s first project was the collective development of a series of properties in rural Texas, 45 minutes outside of Austin. Now the mission has expanded to helping members start up their own neighborhoods wherever they may be. Local resources can be bolstered with the help of the DAO and members of the DAO can request to stay in neighborhoods across the network. A departure from Web2 property sharing like AirBnB, whose users came from a vast global network verified by centralized social media, Cabin offers a more aligned kind of space user. This user already acts with the values of the DAO and holds a Cabin Passport which stores a reputation account of their participation in online and offline activities. This passport replaces third-party verification tools such as credit scores and social media profiles and focuses your sense of belonging and trust in Cabin, via the contributions you make. Another innovation from Cabin is that it may be one of the few DAOs out there that I know of who can cut an actual cheque in fiat, which was necessary to buy building supplies from Home Depot.

  2. CityDAO

    Founded by Scott Fitsimones, CityDAO first made waves by being one of the earliest DAOs to acquire property in Wyoming, shortly after the state signaled to DAOs that they would be welcomed by legislating that LLCs could be owned and operated by a digital community. Parcel 0 of CityDAO is a bare rural acreage divided into 6000 fractions that at present hosts only a bench and flagpole. The community found it hard for any sense of leadership to emerge from such diffused ownership, which also accounts for the slow development of the land parcel. Newer neighborhoods for CityDAO are being planned in Colorado with a new strategy. CityDAO will be the owner of the land, and it will be leased out on long-term 99-year agreements that are authenticated with an NFT. Currently, land deeds can not be represented by NFTs in most property registries around the world, but a lease between a company and an individual can be: a novel workaround that can enact and model new behaviors and norms ahead of emerging legislation.

  3. Earth

    Working in partnership with OMA, the architecture firm helmed by Rem Koolhaas, and also backed by crypto founders such as Vitalik Buterin, Earth is a collective with members in multiple locations including New York, Los Angeles, London, and Berlin. “We’re working across architecture, technology, design, and art,” explains Christopher Kulendran Thomas, a founding member and artist, who is currently presenting the project alongside exhibitions at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art and Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art. The artist describes these shows as “covert sci-fis about Web3” and explains how the exhibitions serve as “prompts for Earth’s community to build shared tools for cooperative economies.” Anush Sarkisian, a member of the collective, added, “Earth is convening a research and development community to experiment with various parts of the citizenship stack for a cloud city.” The collective has announced nothing publicly about what they’re working on; their website hosts only an enigmatic text about free-market communism, the return of history, and the end of the West, with an invitation not to exit, but to advance to “Level 2.” One would typically expect an orchestrated press rollout with a project such as this, but the fact that Earth’s activities are shrouded in mystery and indistinguishable from a conceptual art project speaks to the mercurial nature of the crypto city.

  4. Flow

    A notable, but anxious new project helmed by Adam Neumann, the founder of WeWork, who was able to secure a new 350 million dollar investment from a16z to initiate a rental sharing scheme with crypto. Not much is known about the company, or its model. Typical of Neuman’s businesses to remain shrouded in mystery, lifestyle, and anticipation. This project returns to his late 200s concept for a home-sharing business, which he pitched to investors before having better luck with co-working spaces via WeWork.

  5. Praxis

    Praxis is an ambitious community-driven project attempting to assemble digital power and an aligned membership, secure financing from large pools of capital, and partner with a government who are looking for a driven group of people to establish a new city and grow a local economy, all of which would culminate in the development of a new urban space with an initial target population of 10,000. There are no tokens or NFTs for Praxis at present and membership is based on one of the most rigorous community acceptance processes I’ve seen to date. Before applying you gain points by participating in challenges on Twitter and Discord that get you engaged and thinking about what you would do or change about your current city if you could. These challenges include things like taking photographs of well-used public spaces, doing an inventory of public art in a neighborhood, or proposing a needed change that could better the lives of the many. Once invited into the community you can participate with Praxis Projects, which are deliverable-oriented calls to develop city-building tools. A recently closed call for Metropolis Diagnosis was a challenge to develop a dashboard that enables a city’s leadership to determine how well they are providing for their residents over time, and relative to other cities with KPIs. So far Praxis has raised 15 million dollars in a Series A. Previously, 4.2 million dollars were raised in a seed funding round with Balaji Srinivasan, the author of The Network State.

  6. Serif

    Serif is a community for and by queer people. Proposed as a network of urban spaces for queer coworking and community conviviality, the project aimed to raise a community of queer leaders across the US and onboard them into the crypto space. This was a novel concept given how already vulnerable queer spaces are being eaten away by gentrification today. The Web3 barriers seemed too great for existing queer leadership, and after an initial NFT membership sale and raise, Serif pivoted to a traditional membership structure without Web3 tools for the time being. All NFT purchasers were refunded in full. Should the project move back in the direction of Web3 and crypto in the future, it will be on the community’s terms.

With thanks to The Canada Council for the Arts and 221A for the support of my work and research over the past several years, which informed much of this text.

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