The post-pandemic city: transnational cooperation and public policy


Rafael Heiber | Colleen Boland

Jun, 2020

In less than six months, the COVID-19 pandemic brought about conditions and circumstances so exceptional they are even reminiscent of a wartime situation; in this case, however, the enemy is disconcertingly less tangible, with a vaccine solution hidden beyond an uncomfortable horizon.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus circumstances have affected all either directly or indirectly, in what seems an unprecedented manner. At the same time, the pandemic has highlighted many criticisms that were already fomenting, or even explicitly articulated, in our communities. Similarly, critics have long debated empathy versus unresponsiveness, between action and impotence. Many of these marginalized thinkers and voices that had called for change were not only cautioning as to the fundamental right of building, maintaining and providing access to health, but also understood and advocated for the overall wellbeing of citizens as an underlying and pressing societal challenge. These advocates have proven capable of providing analytical frameworks, and powerful accounts of failed sacro-capitalism.

In this vein, the true challenge does not just lie in the pandemic, but rather in finding an alternative to the hegemonic, neoliberal construction of the world, and the production of its subjects. A choice is presented: on the one hand, we can remain in a purportedly advanced modernity filled with triumphant promises, essentially a narcissistic vision that culminates in the end of history as we know it. On the other, we can revive solidarity and creativity in an effort to reevaluate the present and reframe it into a postmodern transition, continually engaging in this process of constituting the pandemic’s new normal as a turning point.

Photo_ Tony Vacas_ Warnes Shelter

We seek to support such a transformation, fueled by progressive ideas, in a modest, yet genuine and effective manner. In fact, we have been pursuing this as part of the Common Action Forum’s mission from the start. It requires the development and implementation of critical frameworks, capable of uniting, building and promoting solutions to growing inequality, environmental devastation and distorted freedoms, ultimately achieving an authentic and optimized global citizenry.

Motivated by this objective, we decided to launch this magazine, publishing articles with comprehensive and rich content. While often in the form of extensive scientific publication, this knowledge production will attempt to remain independent of academic pedantry or bureaucracy, instead prioritizing the real-world knowledge and experience of authors, unique in how they are in touch with society’s fundamental questions.

metapolis is a pluralist space: it is a place to propose ideas that supersede the traditional borders of knowledge, mobilizing them to confront global challenges. metapolis is a territory of hyper-connection, liberated from past nostalgia, critical of the present and committed to a sustainable and just future. It does not wait for reform that maintains the status quo, nor does it aspire to do so, either. In fact, in metapolis everyone suspects that this future may never come, but still are not convinced to give it up for good. The latest political, economic, technological, environmental, sociological and health emergencies just reinforce the need for us to work harder.

In facing structural problems all the more visible thanks to COVID-19, the first volume of metapolis, divided into two numbers, discusses «The post-pandemic city: transnational cooperation and public policy.» As the 21st century is characterized by predominantly urban life, it is within this space that society and institutions can make an impact in a way that transcends, but at the same time operates in conjunction with, national, regional and transnational structures. The city has emerged as relevant in a twofold manner: in the first instance, it has played a key role in the march forward or regression in terms of human advancement, a trajectory more recently characterized by collapsing financial systems. In the second, it serves as a microcosmos that can act as a unifying basis for an unprecedentedly diversified and interconnected world.

In this vein, the true challenge does not just lie in the pandemic, but rather in finding an alternative to the hegemonic, neoliberal construction of the world, and the production of its subjects.

In the first case, the crisis of modern democracy is directly linked to a global financialization that qualifies its success in how it objectifies cities and citizens as products or assets, with a market that not only subsumes a great amount of attention and energy, but also impacts life aspirations. The process of capture, accumulation and exploitation applies a veritable range of psychological theories (positive, cognitive, etc.) and business doctrines that have served as dangerous placebos in the self-interested regulation of individual freedoms and the incessant search for self-absorbed meritocracies.

Human curiosity sought to understand the processes of social adaptation to the idealized conditions of superabundance made possible in particular since the Industrial Revolution, leading to an infinity of attempts to transform the world into a laboratory. Half a century ago, ethologist John Calhoun experimented with creating a utopian universe for mice: an environment with an abundance of food, comfortable space and time that resembled an eternal succession of quiet Sundays. The initial population of eight specimens exponentially grew during the first weeks, until finally slowing, and surprisingly, coming to a halt in birth rate after 600 days. The population had reached two thousand, in an environment that had provided for almost four thousand.

In these types of analyses, care must be taken to refrain from applying Hobbesian, Cartesian, Kantian or Durkheimian notions to explain the behavior of a species that does not act according to the state, a method, the moral or the social facts [1]. The experiment, however, ultimately demonstrated profound intergenerational changes in this group of mice: social ties began to break down and isolation became the rule. Some segregated violently, repressing the young. Others were indifferent and participated in hedonistic enjoyment. And even with all available resources, the utopian mouse universe disappeared in less than five years, when the final mouse died alone.

Unlike Calhoun’s mice, humanity is reflexive, has potential and aspirations of its own, and is capable of predicting the unpredictable; it can conceive of good and evil, and either via one or the other, is capable of developing abstract ideas that allow for collectively overcoming biological fragility, ultimately establishing itself as one of the main forces of nature [2]. At the same time, human ingenuity heightens the complexity of this world, a world with an ethical maturity that evolves more slowly than the pace of technological development. Still, humanity boasts the potential capacity to avoid new totalitarian systems, whether the state or the market; it face the challenge of overcoming a false dilemma or choice between freedom or equality, and of counteracting the fracturing between humanity and nature.

These challenges demonstrate why urban spaces hold key relevance, due to the unique ways of coexistence, participation, articulation and solidarity they afford. Individuals, communities and nations have been experiencing the consequences of imperfect democracies and threatening authoritarianism; both regimes have failed not only to provide for wellbeing at all levels, but have also proved unable to cultivate true life philosophies.

The local level, found within a global network of relations, provides a unique space for rootedness and shared human experience, which can feed into and reflect an openness and universality so key in our modern era of hyper networked societies. In effect, in response to the breakdown and decline to date, these communities serve as concrete, real world, grounded inspiration to establish new bases for social cohesion.

For all of these reasons, it is an honor to introduce the prestigious authors that have provided their fresh and original insight on these themes, allowing us to chart a course towards a more hopeful future.

Manuela Carmena begins this issue’s discussion with the article «Before and after the pandemic: a city of solidarity, creativity and participation.» In it, the former mayor of Madrid upholds the city as a space of emancipation par excellence, asserting that solidarity, creativity and participation are the three principles on which cities should be based. While air pollution is a constant threat to health, COVID-19 has stressed that we will never enjoy healthy cities if governments and citizens do not embrace the principle of solidarity. Participation, meanwhile, is inherent to cities as public spaces of freedom. Finally, the author proposes that creativity is essential in that it allows us to imagine better worlds; only if conceived of first can they become possible. In order to achieve such possibilities, the former mayor suggests conceiving of caring for the city «like a good mother in a family.» This metaphor seems apt in that women leaders have proved some of the best crisis managers over the course of this pandemic.

The local level, found within a global network of relations, provides a unique space for rootedness and shared human experience, which can feed into and reflect an openness and universality so key in our modern era of hyper networked societies. In effect, in response to the breakdown and decline to date, these communities serve as concrete, real world, grounded inspiration to establish new bases for social cohesion.

The pandemic has also exposed some weaknesses in the dialogue between science and society, in a phenomenon termed denialism. The reasons for these deficiencies are varied, ranging from the manipulation of public opinion, to low levels of cognitive dissonance, to social resentment when science is perceived as an element of class distinction. An example from recent years includes how economic, political and social sectors have acted to discredit global warming. Alfredo Aguilar, former head of the units of Biotechnology and International Scientific Cooperation at the European Commission, demonstrates that in the face of this pandemic, science is the fundamental pillar upon which to build effective policies, guided by joint public and private initiatives. «Let us give the future another chance,» illustrates how humanity’s upcoming challenges are closely related to the biosphere. Instead of global silence, such challenges will require global, synergistic response. The author proposes bioeconomy and biodiplomacy as two new tools essential in integrating local, national and global initiatives in order to effect necessary transformation.

Meanwhile, Germany’s former Minister of Justice, Herta Däubler-Gmelin, questions these transformations in the article «The post COVID-19 challenge: a simple reset or a real change?» The author makes a case for how the state of emergency triggered by the pandemic is a dangerous threat to fundamental human rights. At the same time, it is noted that civil society in several countries has demonstrated itself capable of cooperating in order to stop the spread of COVID-19, as opposed to major failures in global cooperation. The most developed regions of the world have been shaken in their false confidence, and populations in developing regions, the most disadvantaged, have suffered the most acutely. In addition to recounting experience of confinement in Germany, the author highlights how democratic societies were no less efficient in managing the crisis than authoritarian ones, and is optimistic about the potential for change resulting from this current crisis, despite a growing social gap. Finally, the author concludes that far-reaching solutions are feasible if the threat is perceived as sufficiently serious.

Alfonso Zegbe, head of the Strategy and Public Diplomacy Unit at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, presents a proposal in the form of a multi-level approach to public policies, linking all levels of decision making. «Socioemotional wellbeing: a revisited approach,» examines the immediate effects of COVID-19, advocating for a cross-cutting approach and framework that includes several sectors and civil rights, including: general health and wellbeing, long-term emotional education and learning; food safety; urban and rural spaces and social flows; and finally, housing and other forms of human habitat. The author concludes with reflections on institutional action that would address concepts of communal happiness and wellbeing, incorporating the state and civil society into a discussion that should not be delegated exclusively to the market.

Precisely in keeping with this train of thought, Laura Basu, academic and Editor of the ourEconomy section of openDemocracy, offers us her article, «The post-pandemic city beyond state and market: a thought experiment.» Examining eco-social fiction, theories of the commons and real-life examples of race and gender resistance, the author invites us to imagine a reality in which nation-state borders and the capitalist model, rooted in colonialism, are ultimately overcome. It serves as an invaluable exercise of scales, moving between communal localism in daily life, to production and consumption relationships, to the potential for network connections hidden in these communities. The reader will also note a utopian notion different from that of Calhoun: a utopia in which human communities are destined to break free of systems of domination, and participate in the creation of their own universe.

In closing the issue, Wadah Khanfar, President of Common Action Forum, offers a series of historical precedents in the analysis «COVID-19 as a meta crisis and our post-pandemic order,» which affirms that we are not alone in the midst of this health, political, economic and social crisis. All of these crises combined together represent a meta-crisis with repercussions for all aspects of human life throughout the world. The pandemic provides a time-space continuum, with geopolitical trends accelerating in favor of China and to the detriment of the United States, as a new world order approaches. This transition involves new disputes that will require reimagined institutions and societies, with the power of ideas providing for the possibility of a new world history. The post-pandemic world may not be fair or secure, and in many places fear will give way to setbacks and nationalisms. However, humanity is nonetheless incited to build a fairer alternative, moving towards a transnationally connected localism, under a new value system that enables the common good to prevail.

Photo_ Alexis R_ Branch so Bright_ CC BY 4.0

In sum, the thoughtful insight from the authors first provides their various expertise in either observing or troubleshooting the COVID-19 crisis. Ultimately, however, the issue utilizes the COVID-19 discussion as an impetus for designing and implementing change. In particular, this change is contemplated simultaneously at both the local and transnational level, acknowledging the individual and universal in all of our communities, and the collective goal of the common good. We hope this issue provides food for thought in this regard, as well as real world experience and solutions that put such thought into action. The conversation is far from finished, however. metapolis will continue to publish an article monthly, with a second number available in December 2020, completing our inaugural volume.

[1]  Praxeomorphic behavior is the objective attempt to explain the behavior of a certain group or species, based on the criteria available within an observer’s reality.

[2]  This leads many thinkers to adopt the notion of the Anthropocene, a geological epoch characterized by anthropogenic impact on the planet.