From Babylon to Boston, cities have always been hubs of economic growth and cultural activity. Bringing people from around the world to cohabitate, explore new ideas, and transact in new ways. Often, these cities are shaped by technological change – whether it be the discovery of new resources (giving rise to early trade routes and ports in ancient Babylon) or the capturing of new power sources (birthing factories of the Industrial Revolution in Boston) – the history of cities is a history of technological innovation.
As our world becomes increasingly digital, cities are reinventing themselves yet again. But the next generation of cities won’t be built with wood or bricks or steel. This time around, cities will be built with code.
Before we dive into the digital city, it’s worth taking a step back to capture what makes cities so magical.
At their core, cities are complex systems – which bring together a variety of parts that interact with one another in ways that allow the entire system to function as a coherent whole.
A simple example of this might be a car, where a set of car parts does not make a car. In order for these parts to become a car, they must be arranged to interact with one another in such a way that allows the entire machine to operate as one. It is the parts of the car and the synergies between these parts that allows the global “car” to exist and the car has different characteristics than the parts that make it up (i.e., the ability to drive). This phenomenon is called emergence.
The impacts of emergence cannot be overstated. Our existence as humans is a product of emergence – from the organs in our bodies to the cars we drive – these are all emergent properties of complex systems, each made up of simpler parts arranged in relation to one another. Cities are no different.
While technological innovations may spark migration to cities, as more people migrate, people begin to specialize and depend on one another. This allows cities to grow even more, creating an interconnected and interdependent network of people, cultures, and resources. From this network of interactions, cities begin to display properties that are distinct from the parts that come together to create them.
This is the magic of cities.
To understand the future of digital cities, we first need to understand the parts that make up a digital city. Things like citizens, land, and institutions are all important elements of physical cities. In the digital landscape, this might look like identity, digital spaces, and protocols.
While several web3 projects are exploring identity and protocols, at Metropolis, we think deeply about digital spaces – which make up most of the modern internet. Digital spaces are the places people congregate, chat, build, and work alongside one another. This includes everything from GeoCities to MySpace, all the way to Reddit communities.
Over the past decade, hyperconnected digital spaces have created opportunities for individuals to connect and engage with one another in ways that have never been possible. These spaces have allowed us to express our identities in digital form, explore our passions, and even make a living.
In this way, digital spaces are the precursor to digital cities – places that allow people to connect and create new relationships among one another that enable emergent properties. But we haven’t yet seen the bustling economies or interconnected subcultures one might expect to emerge from a digital city.
This is because digital spaces are built with one fatal flaw: they are instantiated on borrowed land.
“Instantiated on borrowed land” means these spaces exist on platforms that are not owned by the people who inhabit the space. For example, a digital space on Discord is instantiated on borrowed land because Discord owns it. If Discord decided to change their APIs to limit access to certain data or even shut down a server with no explanation, they have full power to do so.
While this seems like a reasonable tradeoff for spaces at an individual level, the complexity (and thus emergent potential) of digital spaces built on these platforms are limited to connectivity and relations within those platforms. For example, Discord servers cannot plug into Twitter Circles, which cannot easily be tied to Reddit communities. Since these platforms are not interoperable, the complexity (i.e. emergent potential) of these spaces is limited to what can be built within each platform.
Before we dive deeper, it’s worth noting that web2 platforms have no incentive to make these spaces interoperable. Not only would this require data standardization across platforms, but it also undermines today’s dominant business models. With moats that are often driven by network effects and revenue models that are dependent on platform-specific attention capture, interoperability just doesn’t make sense for platforms to prioritize.
Quick note: we use “borrowed land” here to explore an instantiation of the internet which is built on infrastructure that is not owned by those who exist within these spaces. This is distinct from stolen land, which references the illegitimate acquisition of land throughout history (often tied to colonialism and imperialism). This distinction is a topic of discussion that warrants an entirely different essay.
While web2 platforms are busy trapping users and communities in digital spaces, web3 introduces a new paradigm into the digital landscape.
Rather than digital spaces being instantiated on borrowed land, web3 introduces the potential for these spaces to be instantiated on a shared ledger (the blockchain). This means these spaces are not owned by a platform. Instead, they’re owned by the people who create and participate in them. In essence, web3 enables digital spaces to become sovereign.
This paradigm shift means that digital spaces become interoperable, which in turn allows them to become highly interconnected and interdependent. As the connectivity and interdependence among these spaces grows, so does the complexity of these systems.
This is how digital cities emerge.
DAOs represent a movement toward more sovereign digital spaces. Tools like multi-sigs make it possible for DAOs to instantiate their own sovereign spaces, owned by the people who participate in them.
So why haven’t we seen highly interconnected and interdependent networks of DAOs emerging?
While sovereignty is a precondition for emergence, sovereignty alone will not magically turn fragmented digital spaces into digital cities. If we want DAOs to transform into digital cities, we need to consider the properties that enable emergence in complex systems.
1) Relational Order
Complex systems are made up of many different parts, which are distributed with no central authority, but relate to one another on local scales. This gives rise to new scales, which create hierarchies among systems. In this way, order emerges not from a centralized authority, but from local relationships between parts.
Complex systems are also highly interdependent, where parts rely on one another. Often, interdependence is a result of specialization, where elements of a system specialize in one thing and provide efficiency for other elements. This allows systems to benefit from economies of scale.
Not to be confused with interdependence, complex systems are also highly connected. As parts of a system become more highly connected, they start to look more like a network. This phenomenon is behind the famous Ship of Theseus, whereby you can replace every individual component of a ship and the ship will still be the ship.
Rather than some top-down, centralized authority organizing parts of a system, adaptation and autonomy happen at a local level, where each part has the ability to respond to its local environment based on its own set of logic and rules. This is how ant colonies are able to respond to their changing environment, despite the fact that each individual ant has no conception of this global response.
All of these properties have one thing in common: they define the ways in which different parts of the system relate to and interact with one another, which enables emergence. This type of relationality matters not only within DAOs, but also among DAOs.
Instantiating digital spaces on-chain gives us sovereignty, but if we want digital spaces to transform into digital cities, we need high fidelity frameworks for representing the complex network of relationships within these spaces.
At Metropolis, we’ve built relationality and connectivity into the protocol itself. Pods are a wrapper around a multi-sig, which allow groups to maintain sovereignty, while also giving them the ability to define complex relationality within and between pods. This is the type of infrastructure that will enable DAOs to transform into highly connected and interdependent digital cities.
As DAOs continue to evolve, we’ll begin to see the newest iteration of cities materialize. FWB, Cabin, and others have already begun using cities as a lens for guiding their organizations and steering toward a future of a localized internet.
But these cities will not exist in isolation. Unlike physical cities, which are bound by geography, physics, and borders, digital cities have no true bounds. The costs of transactions and exchange of information in digital spaces are not limited by the physics of the real world. In this way, there is vast potential for digital cities to be hyperconnected to a degree physical cities could never reach.
People often talk of the DAO landscape as an ecology. We believe the landscape is actually more like a city of cities – a Metropolis of interconnected and interdependent organizations. Much like a city, the richness of this Metropolis stems not from the glitzy buildings or beautiful people. Rather, it is the network of people, culture, and economies coming together to cohabitate that makes these spaces thrive.
Huge thanks to John Sterlacci for planting the Digital Cities seed, Julia Rosenberg and Chun for the amazing feedback, edits, and support on this piece, and all the web3 frens who inspired so much of the thinking around cities in web3.