The Group of Twenty (G20) has long been the diplomatic white whale of city diplomats and urbanists. More than the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the BRICs, the Group of Seven (G7), or even the United Nations Security Council, G20 members most accurately represent economic and political power in the world today. And yet, with over fifty percent of the world urbanized and with cities driving economic growth and increasingly the global climate change agenda, city leaders have for years had no formal avenue for engaging the G20. That changed in December, 2017, with the announcement by the city of Buenos Aires in Paris of the Urban 20 (U20) and the convening in October, 2018, of the first U20 Mayors Summit in Buenos Aires.
It has become commonplace to note that the global order—with its bedrock post-World War II institutions, alliances, and diplomatic norms—is under strain. The absence of consensus communiqués from the 2017 G20 in Germany and 2018 G7 in Canada both reveal the high diplomatic costs of sudden shifts in policy priorities and disregard for diplomatic practice. The advent of the U20 is meant to elevate the role of cities on this uncertain global stage. It has emerged from the leadership of networks and mayors, and in that sense is part of the larger megatrends of the twenty-first century. But it is not meant to overturn any order, to challenge the Westphalian system. It stems, instead, from a realization that cities cannot act alone to solve global challenges like climate change and income inequality. And it reflects the fundamental truth that nation-states cannot solve those problems without working hand-in-hand with cities. In short, the U20 is part of a larger effort to evolve the global order, including the G20, to reflect the reality of power in the twenty-first century and to meet its challenges.
The G20 has seven engagement groups—including the Business 20, Science 20, and Civil 20—to allow non-state expertise and perspective into its process. While each has the ability to include issues facing cities, until 2018 no formal group or platform existed to allow municipal officials and city-perspectives to communicate as a collective to G20 leaders and Sherpas. This is not necessarily for lack of effort, and recognition of the need for a collective-city voice is not new. The Obama Administration gave consideration to integrating urban concerns into G20 processes, and Germany possessed ambitions to elevate urban issues at Hamburg. Leading urbanists, economists and academics like Aromar Revi, Director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, and Michael Cohen, Director of the International Affairs Program at the New School, have been advocating for such a development for years. C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40) and other leading networks in the climate change space, meanwhile, have increasingly recognized the need to broaden their diplomatic efforts to include the G20.
Indeed, the realization of the U20 is less an intellectual innovation than it is a diplomatic development. Its development is the result of both larger trends and discrete political leadership. On the structural side, cities now possess the ability to organize quickly and efficiently. According to ongoing research at the University of Melbourne, there are currently over 300 city networks. These networks consistently lead to policy exchange and frequent dialogue between officials. Two of these networks, C40 and United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), have played central roles in the creation and orchestration of the U20, with C40 serving as the convener in collaboration with UCLG. C40 is comprised of 96 of the world’s largest cities, while UCLG’s network represents 70% of the world’s total population and is present on six continents. Such networks are now experienced at producing communiqués and charters and have helped develop the practice of city diplomacy.
The G20, unlike many other multilateral institutions, does not have a secretariat, making the role of the presidency—or host member—all the more important. The leadership of the City of Buenos Aires thus proved crucial to the launch and subsequent direction of the U20. In the summer of 2017, Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta proposed the idea to the Mayor of Paris and Chair of C40, Anne Hidalgo, who would ultimately serve alongside Larreta as co-chair. The idea was rather simple: global cities, subject to global economic pressures and possessing significant political power, communicating on global issues, like climate change, to the targeted audience of G20 leaders and sherpas. The leadership of Buenos Aires and Paris combined with the strength of their city networks, and, Mayors Larreta and Hidalgo launched the U20 on the margins of the One Planet Summit in Paris in December, 2017.
There’s No Going It Alone
The growth of subnational diplomacy over the last decades has been fueled, in part, by a recognition that nation-states are not moving fast enough to meet global challenges. These alternative efforts are only part of the story, however. As the participation of scores of cities at COP 21 in Paris also shows, many of the more robust diplomatic efforts by cities and city-networks have in fact sought to influence international organizations, nation-states, and their treaties and agreements.
These efforts of diplomatic influence are informed by two strategic assumptions: first, that nation-states can only deliver on the best of their ambitions if they learn to work with, and in some cases empower, cities; and, second, that no matter how many commitments cities make or networks they build, they cannot do it alone. In most cases, rapidly growing cities, for instance, do not possess the financing needed to undertake necessary infrastructure projects. In many cases, they do not possess the authority. Or put another way, to undertake the systemic transition to a zero-carbon society, cities need to work with multilateral and national finance organizations; and to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change, nations need cities to reduce their energy use and change urban behavior patterns.
The diplomatic logic is collaboration and action rather than resistance. The U20 affirmed this approach in its first public declaration, a Joint Statement in April 2018: “We stand ready to work constructively and collaboratively with G20 leaders to find solutions for our common global challenges.”
The twin goals of collaboration and influence, meanwhile, had obvious implications for U20 policy priorities. U20 statements, and adjoining engagement efforts with respective national Sherpas, needed to track roughly to the G20 agenda developed by Argentina. U20 commitments and statements were negotiated through a series of Sherpa meetings, the first hosted by Paris in February, 2018, and second in New York City in June, 2018. In addition to the cities, these meetings included a wide array of expert participants and observers, including the Business 20, the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, and the OECD, as well as the Development Bank of Latin America, the Inter-American Development Bank, the French Development Agency, UN Habitat, and many others. The commitments offered by cities emerging from these meetings and ongoing bilateral discussions hewed closely to the priorities of the G20 Presidency. The initial Joint Statement coming from the first U20 Sherpas’ meeting prioritized climate change, the future of work, and social inclusion. Subsequent statements, including the communiqué, presented a combination of priorities of the G20 presidency along with those of cities. Oftentimes, as was the case with food security and gender equality, priorities converged.
The U20 was conceived in the image of the G20: cities of political and economic power from geo-politically active countries working together on shared goals. And like the G20, the U20 will likely always suffer from institutional ambiguity: Is the goal to deepen diplomatic relationships or to manage crises? Should it have a secretariat? Should its membership be more open? The cities of U20 were nearly unanimous that they did not want a new organization or network. Instead, U20 is a platform, and as such, the chair will prove crucial in managing diplomatic interactions and building relationships with the G20 presidency. In 2019, that role will fall to Tokyo during the Japanese presidency of the G20. That means exciting policy issues around smart cities and pressing ones around aging populations could theoretically be on the table alongside climate change and sustainable development.
True to the platform itself, pressing diplomatic questions will also need to be addressed. As the post-World War II order continues to evolve, speed and flexibility in mobilizing collective effort are now key to meeting global challenges, from the counter-ISIL coalition to the 2014 international response to the Ebola outbreak. But such efforts require extensive diplomatic engagement. And perhaps even more pressing, they require someone able to forge consensus. U20 cities include Tokyo, Berlin, Mexico City, Moscow, Beijing, and Tshwane. As with the G20 in times of challenging geopolitics, the U20 chairs may well face moments where they must balance the difficult choice between consensus and progress. The platform is there now for such negotiations and choices. And the diplomat, of course, must believe a path can be found serving both ends.
About the author:Ian Klaus is diplomatic adviser to the Urban 20. He is non-resident senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Previously, he was senior adviser for global cities at the US Department of State, and deputy United States negotiator for the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development (Habitat III).
But it’s difficult to think about value when we have no buoy for understanding it outside our traditional lenses: for example, our time, our job, and what others tell us they are worth in cash. This, largely, is the world’s paradigm for value so far. But understanding what value really means changes everything—and will be at the center of the decentralized revolution in global coordination that will unfold over the next decade. So, where do we begin?
Let’s start with gold.
Gold is an inherent value. When backing a market, gold allows us to grow a balanced economy well into the trillions. But why does it allow for massive stable markets to form around it? It is gold's permanence that creates stability. We understand that gold will always have value, because it is inherent in all of us, not just in one part of the world, but everywhere, not just today, but tomorrow and for the long haul.
In the 1930s when the gold standard was removed, we learned that the U.S. dollar didn’t need gold to back its economy to flourish. We learned that it was just a symbol for U.S. citizens to decentralize their coordination around the United States economy.
It turns out, common agreement is a philosophy for building shared economy.
And so it seems inherent value is a marker for us to begin exploring what the future could look like—a future beyond gold and the existing realm of credit. And so what else has inherent value? Is education as valuable as gold? What about healthcare? What about a vote that can’t be tampered with? What about an ID that can’t be stolen or erased? What about access to nutrition or clean water? You will find value everywhere you look.
It turns out, we’ve already done the legwork necessary to uncover the most elemental inherent values: The Sustainable Development Goals are commitments grown out of the drive to bring to life basic tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the closest possible social contract we have to a global, common agreement.
We’ve already agreed, as a global community, to ensure inclusive and equitable access to quality education. We’ve already agreed to empower all women and girls, to ensure pure and clean water access for all, to promote health at all stages of life, and to end hunger.
We’ve already agreed.
Our agreements are grounded in deep value centers that are globally shared, but undervalued and unfulfilled. The reason for this is our inability to quantify intangible value. All of these rich, inherent values are still nebulous and fragmented in implementation—largely existing as ideals and blueprints for deep, globally shared common agreement. That is, we all agree education, health, and equality have value, but we lack common units for understanding who and who is not contributing value—leaving us to fumble in our own, uncoordinated siloes as we chase the phantoms of impact. In essence, we lack common currencies for our common agreements.
Now we find ourselves at the nexus of the real paradigm of Blockchain, allowing us to fuse economics with inherent value by proving the participation of some great human effort, then quantifying the impact of that effort in unforgeable and decentralized ledgers. It allows us to build economic models for tomorrow, that create wholly new markets and economies for and around each of the richest of human endeavors.
In late 2017 at the height of the Bitcoin bubble, without individual coordination, planning, or the help of institutions, almost $1 trillion was infused into blockchain markets. This is remarkable, and the revolution has only just begun. When you realize that Blockchain is in a similar stage of development as the internet pre-AOL, you will see a glimpse of the global transformation to come.
Only twice in the information age have we had such a paradigm shift in global infrastructure reform—the computer and the internet. While the computer taught us how to store and process data, the Internet built off that ability and furthered the conversation by teaching us how to transfer that information. Blockchain takes another massive step forward—it builds off the internet, adding to the story of information storage and transfer—but, it teaches us a new, priceless and not yet understood skill: how to transfer value.
This third wave kicked off with a rough start—as happens with the birth of new technologies and their corresponding liberties. Blockchain has, thus far, been totally unregulated. Many, doubtless, have taken advantage. A young child, stretching their arms for the first couple times might knock over a cookie jar or two. Eventually, however, they learn to use their faculties—for evil or for good. As such, while it’s wise to be skeptical at this phase in blockchain’s evolution, it’s important not to be blind to its remarkable implications in a post-regulated world, so that we may wield its faculties like a surgeon’s scalpel—not for evil or snake-oil sales, but for the creation of more good, for the flourishing of commonwealth.
But what of the volatility in blockchain markets? People agree Bitcoin has value, but they don’t understand why they are in agreement, and so cryptomarkets fluctuate violently. Stable blockchain economies will require new symbolic gold standards that clearly articulate why someone would agree to support each market, to anchor common agreement with stability. The more globally shared these new value standards, the better.
Is education more valuable than gold? What about healthcare or nutrition or clean water?
We set out in 2018 to prove a hypothesis—we believe that if you back a cryptocurrency economy with a globally agreed upon inherent value like education, you can solve for volatility and stabilize a mature long lasting cryptomarket that awards everyone who adds value to that market in a decentralized way without the friction of individual partnerships.
What if education was a new gold standard?
And what if this new Learning Economy had protocols to award everyone who is helping to steward the growth of global education?
Education is a mountain. Everyone takes a different path to the top. Blockchain allows us to measure all of those unique learning pathways, online and in classrooms, into immutable blockchain Learning Ledgers.
By quantifying the true value of education, a whole economy can be built around it to pay students to learn, educators to create substantive courses, and stewards to help the Learning Economy grow. It was designed to provide a decentralized way for everyone adding value to global education to coordinate around the commonwealth without the friction of individual partnerships. Imagine the same for healthcare, nutrition, and our environment?
Imagine a world where we can pay refugees to learn languages as they find themselves in foreign lands, a world where we can pay those laid off by the tide of automation to retrain themselves for the new economy, a world where we can pay the next generation to prepare themselves for the unsolved problems of tomorrow.
Imagine new commonwealth economies that alleviate the global burdens of poverty, disease, hunger, inequality, ignorance, toxic water, and joblessness. Commonwealths that orbit inherent values, upheld by immutable blockchain protocols that reward anyone in the ecosystem stewarding the economy—whether that means feeding the hungry, providing aid for the global poor, delivering mosquito nets in malaria-ridden areas, or developing transformative technologies that can provide a Harvard-class education to anyone in the world willing to learn.
These worlds are not out of reach—we are only now opening our eyes to the horizons of blockchain, decentralized coordination, and new gold standards. Even though coordination is the last of the seventeen sustainable development goals, when solved, its tide will lift for the rest—a much-needed rocket fuel for global prosperity.
“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair.”—George Washington