Bay Area should model itself after city-states Hong Kong and Singapore, futurist says

Paul Saffo speaks at the 2013 State of the Valley Conference in San Jose on Friday. (Photo: Rachel Estabrook/ Peninsula Press.)
Paul Saffo speaks at the 2013 State of the Valley Conference in San Jose on February 8. (Photo: Rachel Estabrook/ Peninsula Press.)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — “The Bay area is a city-state, and we should act like one,” said Paul Saffo, a technology futurist who explores and predicts long term change. “We need to think like a region, not a mere collection of cities.”

Saffo, managing director of foresight at Discern Analytics, said it was time for the Bay Area to rethink its relations with counties, states, and even the rest of the world. “The new order is not about shifting boundaries, it’s about dissolving boundaries,” he said in his keynote speech at the 2013 State of the Valley conference in San Jose.

In Saffo’s view, the Bay Area is already at the forefront of this changing mindset. “Digital technology is the solvent leeching glue out of governmental structures,” he said.

According to Saffo’s projections, the real nexus of power this century is moving from nation states — large political bodies representing nations — to city-states, or smaller political units focused on cooperative action.

“Powerful regions are the new basic unit of governance in the 21st century,” he argued in his speech at Parkside Hall. The event was sponsored by the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network, an organization that works with local businesses, governments and community leaders to assess and improve the area.

As power devolves from state to local governments, Saffo said the key is to think like a region, not a collection of cities.

For guidance, he pointed to Hong Kong and Singapore as models of successful modern city-states. Hong Kong, he said, is known for its lack of bureaucracy, whereas Singapore is renowned for its corruption-free business practices.

Of course, there are limits to applying the Hong Kong and Singapore models to the Bay Area. Don Boring of the Asia Foundation, a local non-profit organization, said in an interview prior to the conference that it is hard to compare the three regions directly.

While Singapore and Hong Kong are small in population and land-size,  Boring said the Bay Area is quite different. “We have an entire nation connected to us.” Another complicating factor is that unlike Hong Kong and Singapore, the Bay Area holds land privately.

Ultimately, Saffo said he’s not suggesting that the Bay Area secede from California and model itself directly after either city. Instead, he hopes to focus on fostering pragmatic regional governance and creative cooperation at local, state and national levels.

To gain power and better solve local problems, Saffo said the Bay Area first needs to create and strengthen regional bodies like BART and act as a unit on policy decisions in Sacramento. At the state level, for instance, Saffo said Palo Alto won’t be listened to by lawmakers. If “the Bay Area” makes suggestions, they will.

A regional mindset would also help to minimize  local roadblocks. “I’m embarrassed by how the Bay Area behaved on the high speed rail. Saffo said, “We had a lot of NIMBY (‘Not In My Backyard’) and then BANANAS (‘Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere.’”)

Second, Saffo said the area needs to think more creatively about sharing resources like police, fire departments and city managers. Such mergers could allow counties to invest in bigger ticket items such as helicopters for fire services.

More broadly, this could even mean merging cities themselves. “We have too many cities,” Saffo said. “We can start by cutting the number of cities in half.”

What’s more, Saffo said, it is time to start thinking about dropping boundaries between counties.

“In a world where we shift from nation states to city-states, the border simply does not want to exist,” he contended.

Looking to the future, Saffo said he already sees the necessary types of qualities and partnerships forming to ensure that the Bay Area emerges as a modern city-state.  In his view, a good city-state has defined geographic borders, an outsized economy relative to its neighbors’, and its own brand and mythology.

First, he said, not only is the Bay Area geographically distinct, it has a distinct identity.

“We have a common experience and common perspective that focuses in no small part on the role of high tech and culture,” Saffo said in an interview before today’s conference.

In his speech, he also referred to Silicon Valley as “a place that eats its old. That’s the entrepreneurial spirit.”

The Bay Area has a distinct brand and reputation, another key quality of a city-state. “There is a shared vision of future-looking innovation, love of change, and concern for the environment,” he said.

Second, the Bay Area has a “distinct economy,” the 13th largest in the world, which beats out Switzerland, Sweden and Saudi Arabia.

Third, he said, a good city-state always has awkward relations with its neighbors. “Singapore has Malaysia, and we have Los Angeles.”

Awkward relations do not necessarily mean bad ones. With the northward movement of the San Andreas Fault, “Los Angeles is getting 2.5 inches closer to us every year,”  he joked.

Ultimately, Saffo said, “the Bay Area is already a city-state. We just need to acknowledge it.”


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