those new CITIES, and legitimacy

How is it that we (as a society) have MORE *things* (technology, services, access) than ever before, yet it is not any easier to live a fulfilling/happy/meaningful life (in fact, some would argue harder!)? For the purposes of this essay, we call this latter bucket—of fulfillment/happiness/meaning—LIVING-NESS.

We believe society’s living-ness score has stagnated (and is starting to decrease, likely at an increase rate). We could allocate a lot more energy to studying this topic more formally but for now we observe this anecdotally—go talk to your friends. Literally text them. Do they love life? Talk to the people in their mid twenties. Talk to the people just now entering the real world. Leaving behind their college majors. Going into the workforce. Passed their first job and onto their second job. How confident are they that things are getting better? Who do you know that is extremely happy? Who is extremely optimistic about the future? Who thinks things are getting dramatically better? Who are these people?

Our hypothesis is that, while there are many thousands of people trying to create “micro” optimizations, think of all the new startups being built!, no one is tackling the problem at the appropriate level of abstraction. They are building little widgets and little apps. Little point solutions. Little things that will not matter in 100 years, let alone one decade (honestly most of them let alone one month).

We have to think a lot bigger to reorient the world. We have to zoom out first and then we can go right into the details.

We must not get caught in the valley of nothingness. The valley of playing the wrong game. At the wrong abstraction level, even if you hit a home run it does not matter. You still lose the game. No one cares if you win prizes no one cares about. We have to operate at the right distance in order to make the impact we so desire to make. You work super hard. You make the beautiful thing. And you still lose. That sucks.

We believe LIVING-ness is a LIFE INFRASTRUCTURE PROBLEM, therefore needing us to approach this problem at the LIFE INFRASTRUCTURE LEVEL. 

Otherwise, it may all be for nothing. SaaS, for instance, won’t be known by our great great great grandkid. Cities have an opportunity to be, though.

What if we could build life infrastructure that enabled people to live happier, more meaningful, and more productive lives? 

One pass at this is thinking at the civilization scale. One such implementation is thinking about this as building a new city. Lots of people are thinking about this. I am not the first nor will I be near the last. There are many people working on these new cities. And I am not to prescribe what a city is versus a village or town or project or neighborhood. This is the wrong level of detail for this discussion. I am not sure if what we need is a new planet or a new street corner. Should we abandon today’s cities and build new ones from scratch? What should we do? There are clearly nuances here and I am not trying to pretend that there is only one answer (we could do multiple things).

What I am calling for is new-ness or at least change in some direction.

I believe to be one of the bigger bottlenecks for anyone attempting to build new cities—beyond coordination being the ultimate bottleneck— but for anyone in the planning stage, they should consider how to optimize around: legitimacy

“The most important scarce resource is legitimacy,” Vitalik writes, “To understand the workings of legitimacy, we need to dig down into some game theory. There are many situations in life that demand coordinated behavior: if you act in a certain way alone, you are likely to get nowhere (or worse), but if everyone acts together a desired result can be achieved.

An abstract coordination game. You benefit heavily from making the same move as everyone else.

One natural example is driving on the left vs right side of the road: it doesn’t really matter what side of the road people drive on, as long as they drive on the same side. If you switch sides at the same time as everyone else, and most people prefer the new arrangement, there can be a net benefit. But if you switch sides alone, no matter how much you prefer driving on the other side, the net result for you will be quite negative.

Now, we are ready to define legitimacy.

Legitimacy is a pattern of higher-order acceptance. An outcome in some social context is legitimate if the people in that social context broadly accept and play their part in enacting that outcome, and each individual person does so because they expect everyone else to do the same.

Legitimacy is a phenomenon that arises naturally in coordination games. If you’re not in a coordination game, there’s no reason to act according to your expectation of how other people will act, and so legitimacy is not important. But as we have seen, coordination games are everywhere in society, and so legitimacy turns out to be quite important indeed. In almost any environment with coordination games that exists for long enough, there inevitably emerge some mechanisms that can choose which decision to take. These mechanisms are powered by an established culture that everyone pays attention to these mechanisms and (usually) does what they say. Each person reasons that because everyone else follows these mechanisms, if they do something different they will only create conflict and suffer, or at least be left in a lonely forked ecosystem all by themselves. If a mechanism successfully has the ability to make these choices, then that mechanism has legitimacy.” 

More from Vitalik, “There are many different ways in which legitimacy can come about. In general, legitimacy arises because the thing that gains legitimacy is psychologically appealing to most people. But of course, people’s psychological intuitions can be quite complex. It is impossible to make a full listing of theories of legitimacy, but we can start with a few:

  • Legitimacy by brute force: someone convinces everyone that they are powerful enough to impose their will and resisting them will be very hard. This drives most people to submit because each person expects that everyone else will be too scared to resist as well.
  • Legitimacy by continuity: if something was legitimate at time T, it is by default legitimate at time T+1.
  • Legitimacy by fairness: something can become legitimate because it satisfies an intuitive notion of fairness. 
  • Legitimacy by process: if a process is legitimate, the outputs of that process gain legitimacy (eg. laws passed by democracies are sometimes described in this way).
  • Legitimacy by performance: if the outputs of a process lead to results that satisfy people, then that process can gain legitimacy (eg. successful dictatorships are sometimes described in this way).
  • Legitimacy by participation: if people participate in choosing an outcome, they are more likely to consider it legitimate. This is similar to fairness, but not quite: it rests on a psychological desire to be consistent with your previous actions.” 

The prompt for the remainder of this essay, therefore, is how can we maximize the amount of legitimacy?

It is really important we make most all decisions against this benchmark.

Every decision around the city development should be around increasing legitimacy.

For example, the CEO of this organization should be the person that checks the boxes that matter most here. The name of the project should be the one that checks the boxes that matter most here. The people we let in, etc. 

We look across the following dimensions: 

  • Political legitimacy (how can we get the government to allow this where necessary?)
  • Economic legitimacy (how can we have this make money for the stakeholders that matter? Short, long, and very long term)
  • Social legitimacy (how can we make this cool?)
  • Living-ness legitimacy (how much utility does it provide to each resident?)

Every decision we make therefore should be optimized around legitimacy. Otherwise, my intuition is that the project will fall flat on its face.

I am not so obsessed with the idea of building a new city. That being said, I am inspired by the work of Singapore. I do look in awe when I visit cities where things feel so so so alive. I went to school in a city in the midwest of the US. A city that has seen better days. That place was dead. Dead in a sad way. Surely there were pockets of life. But they were overshadowed by littleness. By victimization. By poverty. Yes in the money sense but more in the energy sense. So many people zombie-ing around, going through the motions, watching football on sundays, but having no pride in themselves.

Compare that to Patagonia. Or Tel Aviv. Different vibe. Sure the buildings look different but it’s more than the cement. IT IS THE VIBE.

Someone will build a new city that I am sure of exactly what the form factor will be—I do think it will rise because of it’s legitimacy. It may be a transformation of a current city but new vibes will come.

If I had to guess, I think someone will build a highly successful neighborhood in one of the big coastal cities. Think soho house style trend of coolness just made into a big gated neighborhood. You could imagine a member style city, gated to the world where you pay thousands of dollars a year to be a member and be surrounded by supposedly other cool people. There are pros and cons to this approach but I think it would work from an economic and coolness legitimacy perspective.

Does it satisfy our desire to bring aliveness back to where we live? That I am not sure of. There are plenty of extremely sterile fancy buildings filled with young ish people (not necessarily cool people) in cities across America. Those suck. Go in them. Go try living in them. Get the fancy room with the new fridge. And realize how bad it is living in a sterile hospital esque room. Pay the premium for the pool you will never use.

That is the wrong flavor of legitimate—there is something off in that skew.