In this moment of accelerating experimentation with new kinds of sovereignty in the crypto space and elsewhere, the Atlas Urbium aims to better understand the ways in which communities with different degrees of autonomy across time have shaped the physical environment under their domain.
Each entry into the atlas will look at one case in which groups of individuals have self-organized around a set of common values to live together in novel ways that offer an alternative to the status quo. We will explore the spatial and social implications of different governance models, as well as their relationship to their geopolitical context. The Atlas will emphasize the connections between governance structures and architectural/urban forms.
The Atlas Urbium is a collectible set of case studies for individuals looking to perform novel experiments in community building that affect the meatspace. Its collectors receive an invitation to the Atlas’ private discussion channels, receive early access to cases and more.
Holders of the The Genesis Paper NFT will retain Early Collector status within Atlas Urbium channels and initiatives.
In late 2021, it is obvious to us that DAOs and other forms of permissionless self-organization will enable the creation of new social institutions that will have an impact at the urban and territorial scale. Most of the early DAOs have been groups of dispersed individuals organizing digitally to ship and grow a protocol. While we are still seeing the refinement of these purpose-driven DAOs and their governance models, 2021 has been the year of the proliferation of culture DAOs: ways for individuals to find one another around broader values and visions first, to then figure out how to deploy these in the form of concrete products or services.
Culture DAOs have broader ambitions. Fundamentally they seek to instantiate a set of values that its members are able to agree upon; they are first and foremost social experiments. Much of today’s attention is focused on versions of this that manifest primarily online, in the catch-all Metaverse. We’ve conceived the Atlas Urbium as a resource for a smaller subset of DAOs that are looking in another direction; that are trying to harness the potential of blockchains and digital communication to build better shared-property models, retreats, neighborhoods, special economic zones, towns, cities or states.
We have already seen Silicon Valley culture fail to create these kinds of environments in the last three decades. City-states on seasteads in international waters, in free-trade zones, along contested political boundaries or within the territories of failed democracies have mostly proven unsuccessful. The obsessive individual desire for personal autonomy, transformed into visions for ‘autonomous’ environments that can be driven by innovation, has been generally based on as flat an understanding of sovereignty–and culture–as the one it seeks to escape. The translation of Silicon Valley’s now status-quo methodologies of product-making have revealed themselves to be limited, and inappropriate for these goals. We believe that forms of social and political leverage are not built that way; they are not just technical problems to be engineered. They are the consequence of cultural phenomena; of people’s desire to live in fundamentally different ways. Optimization has little to do with it.
We have not conceived the Atlas Urbium under the premise that nation-states and empires with global influence will disappear. We have founded it on the hypothesis that we will see a proliferation of new governance models across the whole spectrum of sovereignty: co-livings in urban centers, communes on private land, new educational institutions with fiscal and political privileges, charter cities within nation-states, or network states with discontinuous territorial governance. All powered by innovative technologies, novel forms of consensus, and evolving definitions of personal identity. Built on the experience of earlier experiments.
Under the nation-state paradigm, our concept of autonomy has been flattened to become a binary; something you have or don’t have. Through the Atlas Urbium, we will expand this notion. We will explore the ways in which collections of individuals in the past have developed varying degrees of leverage in their context. Through each case study, we will assess different kinds of cultural, political, economic or military influence that enable groups of like-minded people to manifest ambitious visions of the future in the physical world.
Whether we look at the centuries-long dissolution of the Roman Empire, or the emergence of Modern culture during the late Middle Ages, we can find examples of small groups of individuals that have come together to create alternative models of collaboration and social organization. We can see the ways in which value-aligned communities have developed certain forms of autonomy through a productive exchange with the power structures that surround them. These cases allow us to reflect on how forms of relative sovereignty have enabled them to make transformative contributions to culture at large.
The Atlas Urbium is an effort that we are undertaking based on the hypothesis that culture DAOs and other types of groups like them are better positioned to create new models of social organization and collective living. In a moment of a generalized dissatisfaction and disillusionment with existing social systems; of a growing existential anxiety around climate change; and of unprecedented, positive technical advancements, the proliferation of small experiments in collective living may be the best way to iterate our way into a new, more sustainable status-quo condition; to bring about new ways to organize ourselves that are better aligned with the world becoming.
The nation-state model of territorial governance may still be undergoing consolidation in places like Russia and China, where the power of new technologies has been more effectively captured by governments to exert control. However, in the West we are seeing a different phenomenon: conglomerates like the EU experiencing dissidence; nations like Spain being pressured by secessionism; and centralized tech companies continuing to amass leverage in ways that force empires like the United States into a new balance of power. Although the marketplace of truly sovereign entities has remained relatively stable and homogenous for close to a century, this panorama is already quickly changing. The ways in which we define our identities and construct constituencies is mutating faster than we can wrap our heads around, and the nation-state model is feeling the pressure that comes with this.
Ten years ago an alternative to the status quo of nation-state sovereignty felt inconceivable, even considering the growing imbalances of power and political sentiments mentioned above. But the consolidation of geographically autonomous consensus systems and digital property rights through decentralized blockchains now makes it obvious that new experiments in territorial governance are coming our way in the next quarter century. We think that if the location of current innovation hubs in the crypto space are appropriate indicators, the most interesting of these experiments will happen in the West. They represent the West’s best chance at retaining leverage in the emergent geopolitical scene with minimal compromise to the basic individual freedoms that fundamentally characterize it.
That said, most current enthusiasm about blockchain-infused physical environments still expresses itself through purely aesthetic, eco-nostalgic dreamscapes. Whatever word we prefix ‘solar’ to or affix ‘punk’ to, is not enough. If we want to build fundamentally better communities where we can live, work and innovate together; places equipped to tackle the social and environmental challenges that lie ahead for us; we need to calm our techno-enthusiasm a bit and get down to the hard work of figuring out what has or hasn’t worked. Shipping a new street network or block pattern is not like shipping an app update. Urban systems harden much faster than protocols. They are also much harder to take apart.
The consensus and ownership layer added by blockchains to the communication revolution of the internet puts us in a position to build truly new kinds of institutions for the first time in a while. If we want their impact to be transformative, we have to make sure we aim for them to last centuries, like many of the building complexes, protocols and networks described in the examples of this article. At the frontier, we need to be armed with models that can inspire our creativity and help us make the decisions that, once things harden, will leave us with the outcomes we set out to get. Atlas Urbium is this resource.
Architecture–the design of spaces, buildings, streets, cities and landscapes–is a fundamental tool through which we will perpetuate emergent narratives. It is of course a technology through which we can deliver environments that encourage us to lead a healthier life, to be more social and to make use of resources in a more sustainable way. But it is also a form of symbolic representation that can allow us to manifest our worldviews in ways that are much stronger than charter-documents, protocols or ideological manifestos. It is a totalized, tangible and seemingly permanent way through which we can communicate our values with a much broader audience.
2021’s NFT-mania reminded all of us about the value of symbolic representation in culture. It is not only the way we express ourselves towards others that do not understand us. It is how we find others like us, how we build up our cultural identity, and how we create a corner of the universe that we feel one with. That we call home.
We believe we need to move beyond shallow aesthetic critiques of architecture and into the hard work of figuring out what will be the ‘forms’ that all these developments in culture and technology will take us to. We see no better way to do this than begin by analyzing how others have done the same in the past. How their values and models for coexistence have yielded spaces, forms and aesthetic characters.
Through the Atlas Urbium, we will tackle 5 kinds of case studies, individual examples of which are described throughout this paper’s illustrations. The cases will be published periodically as comprehensive articles. Each case will be collectible as a series of NFTs.
The funding gathered through The Genesis Paper NFT will be used to bootstrap the research necessary to develop the first set of entries of the Atlas. This includes research and documentary travel; the acquisition of rare books with key information; the production of original illustrations or animation; and others.
Holders of The Genesis Paper NFT will retain Early Collector status within Atlas Urbium channels and initiatives for their early support of the project. If you’ve collected the NFT, follow us here for updates on the launch of the Discord channel.
Collectors of the Atlas Urbium articles will be able to join private forums, where they can engage in conversation with other committed and like-minded individuals, attend reading discussions, get early access to Atlas content, and more. The Atlas Urbium will be a repository of key knowledge, relevant to individuals embarking on collective living experiments. But it will also be a space for them to interact with others embarking on analogous projects. The Atlas Urbium will host a reflexive environment for the innovators working on the cities of the future, or the individuals interest in becoming their citizens. A place to walk away from ‘building’ every once in a while, and think creatively, together.
Some cases may fall within more than one of the following categories, depending on the scale at which they are analyzed. In such a case, they may be explored through several entries in the Atlas.
The categories of the Atlas are as follows.
Small communities within larger communities, with a distinct worldview and social system that can nonetheless exchange value with an immediately adjacent urban context.
Small territories where a constituency of diverse backgrounds comes together to rehearse an alternative form of social organization other than what is otherwise available, around a distinct set of common beliefs.
A common geography where multiple exercises in governance are played out side by side, in exchange with one another, and where a subset of individuals is free to move between states.
Stringent, mission-driven orders deployed across diverse territories in the pursuit of a common social objective.
Bottom-heavy federalized territories, where states operate with high degrees of autonomy, and where individuals are bound to systems of governance that operate with varying degrees of efficiency and benevolence.
The Atlas Urbium is our contribution to a new field of experiments: a collection of case studies that can help us assess the viability, sustainability and ethical consequence of the high-stakes experiments beginning to take place. The historical cases in the atlas are neither an endorsement nor promotion of the value-systems that engendered them. They are, rather, seen as an opportunity for us to assess both the potentials and risks that may come with analogous experiments today. In a space in which the rate of innovation requires most projects to do first and think later, the Atlas Urbium is intended as a periodic set of brief pauses; a way for us to understand how others have succeeded and failed in the past to give answers to the fundamental human desire to live together.
Thanks to @sdalcega, @JoshuaRosenthal, Inaniel and @gabrielepizzi for feedback on drafts of this article.