What is a Crypto City?
And how is it different from a Network City, Network State, Smart City, Startup City...
Here’s my working definition, informed by Vitalik’s blog post on Crypto Cities, Balaji’s book The Network State, and my own experience studying and working in urban planning and city government:
A crypto city is an IRL (in real life) city with a government that uses crypto technology to operate and govern.
The word “crypto” in front of “city” doesn’t give any hints about the physical design or master plan of the city in real life. It is not associated with any particular city style like new urbanism or towers in a park, but refers mainly to the operation and governance of a city. In this definition, crypto is not short for cryptocurrency, but cryptography, which is the underlying technology that gives us both blockchains and cryptocurrency.
The Crypto City Spectrum
There are no crypto-native crypto cities in existence today. I’m hopeful that we’ll get there, but for now we just have legacy cities that have incorporated some crypto into city government. Here’s a made-up scale to help clarify:
Crypto Neutral: Not a crypto city at all. This represents most legacy cities today.
Crypto Friendly: A legacy city that is pro-crypto but doesn’t actually incorporate crypto technology into its governance. For example, a city that has financial or fiat tax incentives for crypto startup companies, or that has lots of restaurants where you can pay with cryptocurrency, but doesn’t use crypto in any real city operations.
Crypto Beginner: A legacy city that has taken a baby step in becoming a crypto city - like the NYC mayor getting paid in BTC, or city of Miami with Miami Coin. In this stage, the usage of crypto is more like a political signal than actually impacting city operations.
Crypto Implementer: A legacy city that has actually implemented the use of blockchain or crypto technology in city operations. Reno, NV is now using blockchain to record changes to the its Register of Historic Places. Other cities are exploring the use of blockchain to store citizen records and property deeds - though neither are implemented yet.
Crypto Cyborg: A legacy city that has transitioned almost all of its governance to blockchain. This does not exist (yet!). This would be like if Reno, Nevada, which is an already existing city with regular citizens (who don’t live there because of the city’s interest in crypto), was able put all of its property deeds on chain, had citizens pay taxes with cryptocurrency, voted with the blockchain, and put its regulations on-chain too.
Crypto Native: A city (not legacy) that is started from scratch (vacant land or abandoned city) where everything is on-chain, governance is run by a DAO, and all assets and citizenships are on the blockchain. Living in a crypto-native crypto city would be opt-in, you wouldn’t move there unless you were OK with the use of crypto technology. This is what CityDAO ultimately aspires to.
Crypto City vs. Other Similar Terms
Because its a relatively new term, the definition of crypto city is still fluid, and is often used interchangeably with other similar words. Here’s a few terms and how they relate to crypto cities:
Smart City: Cities that use modern technology and sensors to collect data which is then used to more efficiently manage the city. A crypto-native crypto city is extremely likely to also be a smart city, but I wouldn’t say a crypto city is always a smart city.
Digital City: The most literal definition would be a city that does not exist IRL, but exists only in a digital realm like the metaverse or game like Sim City. Usually though, the term used as an aspiration for IRL/analog cities “let’s be a (more) digital city!” and in this case the its meant to describe a city that is using digital technology to provide services to residents; things like e-voting or real-time mapping of resident calls for service. The term digital city is very similar to smart city, though with smart cities there is some expectation that data from smart sensors will effect change in city operations autonomously, without much need for human input. I would argue that a crypto-native crypto city is by default also a digital city.
Startup City: “Startups should build cities” - the tagline of the excellent Startup Cities substack is self explanatory. The term is similar to crypto city in the sense that both terms are aspirations of how cities could be better; startup cities through a shift in management philosophy and crypto cities through technology. A crypto-native crypto city will most likely also be a startup city, but not vice versa.
City-on-Chain: This is almost identical to the term crypto city. The blockchain (on-chain) is the primary use case of cryptography (crypto). So, basically a city-on-chain is a city-on-crypto, which is just a more drawn out way of saying crypto city. The one slight difference here is that on-chain implies that there are city assets (land titles or citizen records) on the blockchain. So a crypto-beginner crypto city (stage 3 on the spectrum) probably wouldn’t be considered a city-on-chain (might be a city-about-to-be-on-chain), but would still be a fledgling crypto city.
What about Network States and Network Cities?
It’s hard to read The Network State (first published in July 2022), and not think about what a city within a network state might be like. But do we call it a network city? A crypto city?
Network City Etymology - Pre 2022
As far as I can tell, there is no mention of the phrase “network city” in any part of the book (based on a doing a Ctrl-F). If you’ve heard the term network city, you might assume its a Balaji-coined term, but its not something he has actually used.
Network city as a term actually has been around for a while. This 1995 paper, for example, uses the term network city to describe two IRL cities that intentionally connect themselves by infrastructure (highways or communication in this example) for economic benefit. Another 2011 article uses the term network cities to make the point that a city is really just a combination of networks; transportation networks, social networks, communication networks, open space networks, etc. It seems that early usage of this term focuses on the literal definition of the word network, whereas using the term “network city” today usually conjures some association with “network states.”
Network City in the Context of Network States
Let’s assume the term network city is derived from the lore of The Network State. The simplest definition would be something like:
A network city is a city that is physically within a network state and governed by citizens of the network state.
Because of how Balaji defines a network state, a city within it (a network city) is also likely a crypto city. Here is Balaji’s one-sentence definition (see his chapter On Network States for more detail), with phrases suggesting that a network city is also a crypto city in bold:
A network state is a social network with a moral innovation, a sense of national consciousness, a recognized founder, a capacity for collective action, an in-person level of civility, an integrated cryptocurrency, a consensual government limited by a social smart contract, an archipelago of crowdfunded physical territories, a virtual capital, and an on-chain census that proves a large enough population, income, and real estate footprint to attain a measure of diplomatic recognition.
If a network state has an integrated cryptocurrency, a government by which you opt-in with some sort of NFT, and a blockchain-based census/taxing mechanism, then any city within the network state territory would most likely use these building blocks in the governance of the city. If so (and I think most people would assume this is the case), then a network city is also a crypto city.
When is a Network City not a Crypto City?
It is theoretically possible that you could live in a city “owned” by a network state, but the city is governed with traditional means (paper property titles, 10 person city council that meets in person etc.) while the governance of the network state uses all those crypto tools in bold above. In this case, you’d be living in a network city but not a crypto city.
Also possible: you could live in a legacy city NOT within a network state, but where a majority of citizens in the city are members of a network state. Because of the number network state citizens and their political power within the city you might also call this legacy city a network city of XYZ network state, but it wouldn’t be a crypto city.
Is a Crypto City always a Network City?
A crypto city is not by default a network city. It might aspire to be a network city within a network state, or perhaps even become a network city-state (where the entire territory of the network state is the city limits). In the case of a crypto city aspiring to become a network city-state, it might begin as a startup society (another Network State term, but different than startup city).
Thanks? I think?
That’s probably more definitions than you ever wanted to read… but next time you see one of these ambiguous terms out in the wild you won’t be as confused as I was when I started. The main tension I see is between network city and crypto city. And while there is a lot of overlap between the terms, my plan going forward is only to use network city when it is important that the term convey a relationship to the ideology of Balaji’s Network State. Otherwise, I plan to use crypto city to refer to a city anywhere along the spectrum.
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