Ideas Untrapped
Ideas Untrapped


I had a chat with Mark Lutter, founder and executive director of Charter Cities Institutes about the potential of charter cities to boost a nation’s prosperity and development. Our conversation touched on state capacity, why American institutions appear to be failing, and why Silicon Valley elites have no political influence.

You can download or listen right in the player above - or from your favourite players and podcast providers here. You can rate us here, this helps others find the show. Reference guides by CCI for people new to the idea are here. You can also read my writings on cities (here and here). 


TL: Welcome to Ideas Untrapped. Joining me is Mark Lutter. Mark Lutter is an economist and he is the founder and executive director of [the] Charter Cities Institute. You're welcome, Mark. 

ML: Thanks for having me on. 

TL: Yeah briefly, please. What are Charter Cities and what do they bring to economic development? 

ML: Sure, so Charter Cities are new cities with a special jurisdiction that allows them to have a more competitive business environment. And we believe they are important because, over the long run, they're a key determinant of economic performance, economic outcomes and […] governance. If you have good governance, a country will do relatively well and if you have poor governance, a country will do relatively poorly. The challenge can be that it's difficult to reform governance on a national level. There's a lot of special interests groups. There's a lot of politics that goes on that sometimes make the reforms quite difficult to implement. And, Charter Cities, because they're new cities, they can be built on Greenfield sites where there are fewer special interests and because they have a special jurisdiction, it can be politically feasible to implement deeper reforms than might be possible at the national level.

So these deeper reforms are to improve the business environment combined with a new city allow for more economic development to occur than otherwise might take place. So if we look at the last 40, fifty, 60 years, we've seen cities like Shenzhen, Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai emerge from practically nothing to become global metropolises. And we believe that success is replicable. Particularly because there are a little under 80 million new urban residents annually, so urbanization is growing extremely rapidly across Africa and across Asia, and we believe it's quite important to make sure that we get things right now because it's much harder to change governance, It's much harder to change infrastructure once a city is already built. And so we believe that if we can help set up this sort of right institutions now, the right set up now, the right layout of new cities now, it can basically save a lot of headaches over the next fifty [to] hundred years, and help lift tens of millions of people out of poverty and make things better for economic development. 

TL: Yeah, so, obviously, I'm not new to this idea and we've talked a couple of times about it. Thinking about Charter Cities, it's a big project. So what do you think are the effective financing structures that make them feasible knowing the fiscal challenges that some poor countries face?

: Sure, so the way we think about Charter Cities is as Public-Private Partnerships with the host country. So we're not asking the host country to build the city, we're asking the host country to help create a governance framework that can make the Charter City more competitive. And we think that this is especially important now in the post-COVID world where a lot of countries, particularly in emerging markets might be resource dependent on oil and like Nigeria. Or copper, like Zambia. And prices have rebounded somewhat over the last few months, but given that they're much lower than they were a year ago, I think there is a reasonable expectation that demand will continue to be relatively low, at least, until a vaccine is discovered. And so that means these countries have big holes in their budget and will need new financing mechanisms and we view Charter Cities as potentially one of those financing mechanisms. 

Charter Cities, because they're new cities, they can be built on Greenfield sites where there are fewer special interests and because they have a special jurisdiction, it can be politically feasible to implement deeper reforms than might be possible at the national level - ML

The Charter City would have a revenue-sharing agreement with the central government. It will be able to attract a lot of foreign investment, create a lot of economic activities, create a lot of jobs and then some of that wealth that is being created would be transferred to the central government that might be able to help plug the hole that is currently being left by low commodity prices. Additionally, we just think if you build a successful city, it will generate a tremendous amount of wealth. We're still in the early Charter Cities phases and the specifics for financing Charter Cities haven't all been sort of worked out, but the general hypothesis is 'look, if you create a successful, functioning city, then there will be a lot of wealth that is created and you just need to capture some of that wealth that can pay for the initial infrastructure investment that can pay for the costs associated with setting up and building a city. So, that's at least the eye level overview of how we think about financing Charter Cities.

TL: The question of financing is important here because some would argue, and I think, Chris Blattman has actually made this argument that given the risks involved that these investments may not pay off, it's actually an objection to not doing it. How do you react to that? What are the big payoffs for charter cities as opposed to other development interventions like cash transfers and other forms of aid?

ML: Sure, so, it's definitely possible that for one or more charter cities the investments will not pay off. That's the nature of an investment, they're not necessarily secure and so there is always risks associated with investments. The risks associated with charter cities might be higher depending on where the charter city is being built, depending on what the local politics are, depending on the sort of skill of the developer. But I think, I would, I guess, sort of, differentiate as to what we're talking about in terms of investment. So if we're talking about cash transfers. Cash transfers are not an investment per se. Cash transfers are a transfer of wealth. They are basically a donation. It is comparable to charity. And most of the evidence on cash transfers is relatively good. You give people more money, they're able to spend the money to get better things. Recent studies have suggested that this does have relatively long-lasting impact on improving people's lives, so I support cash transfers. 

Charter Cities, at least, the way we at the Charter Cities Institute conceive of them are led by private developers who are building the physical infrastructure themselves. So this is an investment, not a donation. The expectation is if you raise 700 million dollars to build a power plant, to build roads, to build water, electricity, etc, then you expect a return on that capital investment that can justify the risks associated with that particular project. So this is a commercial venture, not a development venture per se. And we believe that Charter Cities can pass this sort of commercial venture test where, okay, if people who are humanitarians want to get involved, that is great, but as a mechanism for social change, I think the profit motive tends to be important and can allow for more social change in a shorter period of time than asking everybody to change their behaviour out of the goodness of their heart. That being said, there is space for, I think, donations in the Charter Cities space. The Charter Cities Institute, for example, is a 501C3. We rely on donations. We are trying to kind of incubate this Charter Cities space, trying to bootstrap it, creating a network of different city developers, developing a set of best practices, things like that. But we have done at least internal calculations that we have published on the research portion of our website, where we look at GiveWell which is a well-known charity evaluator. 

And we look at GiveWell and the cost-effectiveness of various charities that they evaluate and based on some assumptions that we make about our own effectiveness and these assumptions, I believe, are quite conservative. We are comparable to the most cost-effective charities in the world; if not more effective than them. 

TL: Charter Cities, at least, as an idea, in its current framing, is not new. Paul Romer kind of reintroduced the idea a while back. And with implementation - Honduras, Madagascar - they've run into some problems. What are you doing differently at CCI, and how does your model differ from that proposition? 


ML: Sure, and that's a good question. So Paul Romer obviously pioneered this space but didn't have as much success as I think he would have liked. And what we've tried to do is learn from his impact and see how we could try to have a bit more success this time around. So first let me talk about differences with Paul Romer's model and our model for charter cities. The similarities are: both of the models involve cities with a special jurisdiction that allow them to have a different institutional framework than the rest of the country, an institutional framework that is more conducive to economic development, and to growth. Those are the similarities. I think the differences are that Paul Romer advocated a high-income country, for example, Canada administers a Charter City in a low-income country for example, Honduras. So Canada would help create the administrative structure, they would be responsible for it, and that is the mechanism by which part of Honduras could have good governance. We have not pursued that model for, I think, two reasons. One, we're not sure it's feasible. There is a lot of blowbacks associated with charter cities, we're sometimes accused of being neocolonialists, and I think having a high-income country act as a guarantor in a low-income country brings up some of those unpleasant historical memories that might make getting political buy-in a little bit more difficult. 

The second reason we're not pursuing that model is we're not sure it's the best model, even if you, sort of, assume away the political challenges of it. So looking at, for example, the response of many countries in the West to COVID, the US has had a relatively poor response to COVID. Our institutional capacity as somewhat decayed, we aren't as vibrant, as effective as we were 50, 60 years ago, there's a general lethargy in our own institutions, and I think that that lethargy would likely translate to helping to build new institutions in emerging markets. And so there is a question of 'is the high-income country the best institutional entity to help administer a charter city?' And we believe it is not. So what we do is we partner with new city developers. There are by Journalist Wade Shepherd...he estimates there are over 200 mass or fenced cities being built around the world right now. So we try to partner with these new city developers, typically private entities, sometimes they're public but we prefer our partner with the private ones because they tend to be a little bit more effective to figure out okay, they're building a new city which might have a hundred thousand residents, which might have a million residents, so we partner with them to try to improve their governance system. And this might mean working with the government to improve the special economic zone framework. If there is a relatively advanced special economic zone framework in place, we might work with the city developer to figure out okay, what does it actually mean to create this new administrative structure from scratch. So that's the difference in approach.

I guess before I go into why I think we'll be effective, I think, a few other points. One, Paul Romer was quite effective at generating attention and, sort of, starting the conversation and working with governments, at least, up to a point. We're taking a bit more of what might be described as, sort of, a systematic approach. We're somewhat worried about the ecosystem of charter cities being too dependent on a single person or on a single country. So we try to diversify risk by partnering with a lot of different organizations, by working in a lot of different countries, by really helping to spread the idea of charter cities as far as possible such that if one project goes under a hard time or fails, there are other projects that we can shift our attention to make sure the momentum for charter cities is not lost. As to, I think why we think that we will be successful where he was unsuccessful, I think we've learned a lot from him; and in addition, I think the last 10 years, there's been a bit of an increased interest in charter cities. And then second, we're just seeing it on the ground. We have engaged two projects where we are helping them create these legal structures, these administrative entities from scratch to governing these cities. The projects have a degree of political buy-in. We are regularly reached out to by new city developers who are interested in improving governance in those cities. We're basically at the beginning of a charter city's moment, and I think over the next year, the next two years, it will become clear to everybody who isn't paying attention now that the charter city's moment is here, that these projects are real, people are building them, people are moving dirt, people are moving in, money is being raised, etc. that it is no longer just [an] academic discussion, but it is a matter of sort of on the ground, things happening and executing.

TL: I mean, hearing you speak, I thought of a question, which is - to a layperson, like, what exactly are the channels of improvement to income and livelihoods in building a new city, for example?

ML: Sure, so, If we look at a city like Shenzhen, 40 years ago in 1980, Shenzhen was a number of small fishing villages, the total population in the area was about a 100,000 residents. The average income was about $500 a year. It was a very impoverished area and currently, Shenzhen is the manufacturing capital of the world. It has a total population of around 20 million people, they have a subway system that rivals New York. It is a sort of, shiny, gleaming metropolis that really transformed in just 40 years. So while China had several sort of specific conditions that mean that the success of Shenzhen is unlikely to replicate at that magnitude. For example, China had first basically prevented urbanisation from occurring, so there was a pent up demand for urbanisation. As well as China had very stringent regulations and laws which had precluded a lot of economic development. And while Africa, for example, many countries have bad regulations, I'm not sure they were as bad as China in the 1980s. 

But that being said, we believe that a degree of that success is still possible even if you get half of Shenzhen, that's a city of ten million people, that sees your income rise by like 10, 20X over a 40 year period. That is a huge change. If you look in a lot of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, what's occurring now is called urbanization without industrialization. And this means that people are moving to cities. And typically when people move to cities, they become more productive, they are able to make more money, they live better lives, they leave their kids better off, and it's this virtual circle. 

And now, unfortunately, in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa this is not occurring. People are moving into cities but their productivity is not increasing, they're not making more money, and their kids are going to stuck at the same sort of level in income and quality of life that they are today. And what we believe charter cities can help do is to, I guess, help change that to help create these opportunities for these people that are currently being left behind by the global economy and to create this positive dynamic, this positive feedback cycle that leads to people's incomes being increased by 5 percent per year, 10 percent per year. Which because of the power of compounding interest, if your income is increasing at 5 percent per year, that means, every 14 years, your income doubles. So 28 years later, your income will be four times what it was originally. Forty-two years later, which is about the total working life of an adult (about 42 years), your income will be 8 times what it was when you started. You've seen an 8 fold increase in income, [which] is just tremendous. So if we can help create that dynamic, if we can help generate this type of growth, I think that will lead toad to a big improvement in a lot of people's lives.

TL: It's interesting you talked about Shenzhen before we move into the specifics of that. Shenzhen is usually described as a special economic zone. Is that different from Charter Cities, or is essentially the same thing? 

ML: Sure. So, Special Economic Zones. We consider Charter Cities to be a subset of Special Economic Zones. The special economic zone is just an area that says that the laws of the host country don't apply to this area, or like some subset of the laws. But typically, special economic zones tend to be relatively narrow in their focus. They might only encompass an industrial park, they might only be a few dozen or a few hundred acres. They have a relatively set degree of difference from the host country in terms of laws, so it might have lower taxes or it might have a one-stop-shop but they don't really have this deep regulatory reforms. They tend to focus on a single industry, so maybe textile, manufacturing or maybe electronics, they aren't broad-based. Very rarely do special economic zones have residential. And lastly, they tend to be too small to generate sustained economic growth. If you have an industrial park that might be successful, that might create a lot of jobs but that's not really going to create this dynamic positive feedback cycle like a city can. 

Shenzhen whilst frequently described as a special economic zone, at least, according to our definition, it is more like a charter city. The jurisdiction is 320 square kilometres, so that's the size of a city. It is multi-use. They have residential, they have commercial, they have industrial. They have the sort of full dynamics that you expect to see in a city with a lot of different economic parts moving. There was a lot of authority devolved from the central government to the city government. So while many special economic zones might only have like a tax incentive, basically in Shenzhen, with the exception of military and like Mail distribution, you can almost experiment with whatever you want you on the Shenzhen city level. And that allowed for a lot more autonomy than most special economic zones allow. 

So while Shenzhen is sort of colloquially referred to as a special economic zone, it fits our definition and our understanding of what a charter city is a little bit more closely than most special economic zones around the world which are quite different from Shenzhen and as such haven't had the same impact that Shenzhen has had.

TL: Two-part Shenzhen question here. I agree with you, Shenzhen fits better with what you are describing. I mean, there was an industrial zone in Shekou, and of course, there was the whole area that was developed for all kinds of things, tourism and the rest. Now, the first question is that there was a lot of planning and execution in making Shenzhen work. How does the administrative capacity of the host country, how does it affect the execution of a Charter City?

ML: Sure, and I think this is an important point. One of the increasing discussions in economics and international development has been focusing on state capacity in which the administrative capacity of a country or a government can be thought of as - are they able to execute on tasks in a timely and effective manner? So a country with this higher state capacity would be able to build a road cheaper and more quickly than a country with a lower state capacity. And in Shenzhen it was the local government that administered the city. China has had 3000 years [of] history of statehood. So they have a lot of experience in capacity with administrating cities and they just had to adapt it the circumstances at hand. And I think one of the challenges in some emerging markets is that there isn't that long history of statehood. There isn't that long history of administrative capacity, and so the current governments are not being very effective in administering the entire country. So if they start to administer a charter city, you would see a similar type of dysfunction. 

To solve this problem, we are advocating a special jurisdiction with a separate administration from the host country. And so the city would remain part of the host country, it would be governed by a separate bureaucratic apparatus, it would have different standards for hiring, different standards for firing, different standards for promotion, etc, which would allow it to develop a more effective administration than the host country. And so, to this end, we're engaged in [a] sort of early-stage discussion about helping to establish this administrative apparatuses and we're beginning to think about what it means to develop a pipeline of administrators for a Charter City that would help [to] work with educational establishment to create certificates, to create courses that might help teach you how to administer a charter city. 'Cause this is sort of a monumental challenge, there are so many moving parts and you don't really want to hire people from the host country because then they bring the bad culture of the host country government, they bring the sort of, I don't know… the sclerosis that often exists in host countries' bureaucracies that leads to the need for charter cities. But you don't want to transplant that bureaucratic dysfunction to the charter city, so you would have to basically create a new administrative system and a new education system to train those administrators. 

TL: Yeah, so with the special jurisdiction, what guarantees continuity? I'm imagining that the government of the host country would still have some form of authority over that jurisdiction however limited. And what guarantees that another administration does not come in and say, 'Oh, yeah, well, for political reasons or whatever, we're going to withdraw our support for this.' Or is there a specific framework that you've outlined which guarantees long-term autonomy?

ML: Sure. I'm glad you asked that question, that is one of the challenges for charter cities. How do you ensure that there is administrative continuity in the charter city and the host country hasn't changed their mind and limit some of the authority that they had previously granted to the charter city? We are seeing that, for example, right now in Hong Kong, where the Chinese government is passing a national security law that many on Hong Kongers believe changed the sort of terms of the agreement in 1997 when Hong Kong was transferred from the British to the Beijing government. There is no silver bullet for preventing, right? You can't do a magic trick and say 'alright, there is no risk of expropriation of the charter city' but there are a number of strategies that can be developed to mitigate that risk, and in fact, we published an outline of these strategies on our website called the Risk Mitigation Guide. It is in the reference guides. And it should give an understanding of strategies that can be taken to mitigate that risk. So basically, they're business project, they need to be profitable while obviously they're political projects as well. They need to get buy-in from the host country and so there are several ways to do that. 

First, you need to make sure that the development of the charter city itself has an extensive stakeholder management engagement in the planning processes. So you need to work closely with the host country at the central government, you probably want to work closely with the local government, whether it's state or provincial to make sure that you acquire the land justly, to make sure there is buy-in. You could, for example, offer the state or the national government an equity stake in the charter city to align interests of the government with the charter city itself. Second, you probably want to involve business and community leaders in the charter city. Successful institutional change requires the allegiance of the ruling elite, so making sure that there is an incentive for those people who are particularly influential in the country to align with the success of the charter city is important. Third, you probably want to attract industries that create a lot of jobs. It is politically difficult to change something if a lot of jobs are being created, if a lot of investment is being had, things like this. So, make it more difficult for the politicians to take action against the charter city by creating a lot of jobs, by making it successful, etc. 

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Third, most countries in the world are signatories to a variety of international treaties. So if you sign a contract with the host country and they expropriate you, depending on how you draft that language, you might be able to go and sue them in the international court, and if you win to confiscate their overseas assets. This is basically a last-ditch solution. If you get to this stage you've already lost. But it might help sort of as a bit of a deterrent against host country trying to confiscate your assets by demonstrating that there is some recourse to that action of expropriation. 

Another strategy is to list the city on the Stock Exchange. So after 10 or 15 years after the city is successful, maybe you put a listing on the local Stock Exchange for a certain percentage of the value of the developer who has built out the city. What does this mean? Well, this oftentimes, the pension funds and other sorts of financial managers will buy that stock and so pension funds and these financial managers tend to be relatively politically powerful and therefore if their future income streams are depending on the success of the charter city, then the host country might be less likely to take actions against the charter city. And Lastly, I think just to really emphasize the first point - it's very important to make sure charter cities are integrated with the local government, with the community - that the benefits of charter cities are being widespread. The best way, I think, to ensure that there's a minimum of risk of expropriation is just to make sure that it becomes very apparent that the charter city is being successful, it's creating jobs, that everybody is being engaged and participating in the upside of a charter city. 

TL: The second part question is that… I mean, I'm glad you talked about local governance. In building a charter city, I imagine there are allocative decisions that the government would have to make. I compare Shenzhen to maybe some other initiative like Gurgaon in India and one thing the Chinese government had with Shenzhen is that it still maintained control over the allocation of land. And, at least in my opinion, that allowed some kind of diverse development in terms of the industrial and residential developments that took place, and also in the building of public goods, in the provision of public goods generally. 

But what you see, at least, I wouldn't call them charter cities, with projects like Eko Atlantic City and others of such is that, yes, they are planned but, maybe for financial reasons, the allocative decisions are made solely for real estate developments. Maybe that helps in recouping some of the investment. So, I guess what I'm asking is, where should the allocative decisions lie to create the proper incentive for a truly income enhancing city to develop?

ML: Sure, yeah, and I think that is an important question and looking at Shenzhen versus Gurgaon in India. Gurgaon is quite interesting, for the listeners who don't know, basically because of this sort of historical quirk, there was no government which allowed for no zoning and land use regulations and so a lot of tech companies and sort of large companies went and built offices there, advanced infrastructure there, so it has a lot of office buildings, things like that but because there is no governing structure, the public infrastructure tends to be quite poor. So if I remember correctly, there are basically no sewers, most of the buildings have to run on generators. It allows this freedom to build but it combines that with this lack of government. While Shenzhen, the government has been relatively effective in providing public goods, at creating an open space that allows for its success. 

And I think if we look at all the planned cities around the world being built today, Eko Atlantic being one example, I think you capture it well in saying that they are real estate, they're not really cities. So, real estate you tend to define everything very carefully, it's 'we build a thousand houses and we sell them each for this much money and this is what the margins are' etc, while a city is evolutionary, it's dynamic. The sort of level of planning of the city government tends to be much smaller. It's not saying we're going to build an apartment building here and we're going to build a commercial district here. It's trying to create the enabling conditions for growth and for success. And what we're trying to do is trying to kind of change the conversation with some of these new city developers to focus on more of an inclusive model where it's aimed at a broader set of residents. Where right now a lot of the new cities are aimed at sort of upper middle income or above, but how can you push the price point down? So one of the projects that we're working on is a document that is tentatively called a draft master plan. 

What this will do is it will be a master plan for a charter city. We're thinking about having it on 30,000 acres with 1 million residents, but we're explicitly targeting an income level of $1500 annually, which is a little under, I think, the per capita income of Nigeria. It's comparable to the per capita income of Zambia, of Kenya. We're explicitly trying to develop a model where it's accessible to this broad income segment, but we're not saying these are the types of houses that people would already build, we're just kind of thinking about okay, where is the infrastructure going to be? How do we attract an anchor tenant? How do we attract residents? How do we make it dynamic such that people's incomes increase over time? It's possible to build a sort of exclusive gated community where high-income people go and live and work and they end up being quite comfortable there, and I encourage people to do that. That's just not the model that we are particularly interested in. And I think it might be a good business venture but it has limited implications for [the] broader society and what we're interested in is how we can help effect social change to generate economic development and to lift people out of poverty, and I think to do that, it's important to help make sure charter cities are inclusive, allow for all segments of society experience the benefits of living in a fast-growing and dynamic city. 

TL: A bit of a curveball, so to speak, here. There's a lot of planning involved in charter cities. Do you think that that's a challenge to a free-market model of development?

If you look in a lot of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, what's occurring now is called urbanization without industrialization. - ML

ML: In a way, I mean, I'm sure some market-oriented economist might not like what we are doing. I remember when I was doing my PhD at George Mason I was chatting about this with some people, they were like: well, how do you plan? But if we remember the Keynes versus Hayek rap video, the question is 'who plans for who?' So there always need to be some level of planning, right? We do it on an individual level. We do it on a corporate level, even government does it on some level. If you're just planning for, how many police, how many courts? What should the military do? Things like that. And so we might be taking a slightly more active role in planning than some free markets economists might advocate for in terms of thinking about what the anchor tenant should be, how to attract them, how to create these sort of supply linkages. In the draft master plan that we're developing, we are thinking about basically how to create a type of industrial policy because what we want is, okay, when it starts, maybe you focus on textile manufacturing or some relatively low skilled type of employment, but how do we make sure there is skill transfer over time such that the city can move its way up the value chain, can create more jobs and can have this positive dynamic to help lift people out of poverty rather than just being stuck at textile manufacturing now and then 30 years from now? 

TL: That's interesting. I spoke with Garett Jones, and one of the things he proposed that developing countries [should] try to do is to become an attractive destination for high skilled labour, you know, a labour quality argument of sorts. Do you think charter cities can be a channel for such attraction of high quality, high skilled labour to developing countries which obviously has benefits?

ML: Yeah, I think it can. A charter city if developed correctly will probably be more safe than the host country because the place will be more effective. The charter city will be more dynamic. There will be more opportunities and so if there is a high skilled worker who are in their early career and want to do it abroad. Or maybe their ancestors are from a country and want to sort of return and kind of give back or maybe they are first-generation immigrant and want to give back, then I think a charter city would be a probably more attractive place to live than the rest of the host country because it would be more dynamic. There will be more opportunities. It would be a more exciting place to live. That being said, I think I disagree slightly with Garett Jones on the definitely want the higher-skilled workers for the knowledge transfer. It depends on exactly what he means by this, but Dubai, for example, was able to attract a lot of high skilled workers primarily from Europe, while Shenzhen developed without that many highly skilled workers. They had a lot of investment from Hong Kong. And they had a lot of managerial talent that could come from Hong Kong. So I think it's quite important to, I guess, create these linkages with different areas, different cities that can help the skills transfer process, and then you probably also want to help high skilled workers come in to fill senior administrative positions. But I think to make sure charter cities are scalable, the vast majority of the new urban residents over the next 30 years are not going to be highly skilled. They're going to be relatively impoverished coming from rural areas. We're not going to have sort of the skills that we typically associate with the modern economy, and I think what is important is to realize that and to create systems and processes to allow them to improve their skills, to allow them to get better, to allow them to, sort of, transform the city into somewhere that they would be proud to call home. 

TL: I'm curious. What exactly made you, Mark Lutter, interested in this problem? Why did you choose to work on this other than teaching at GMU or writing papers and other things you could have done as an academic?

ML: Sure. Well, I'm not sure I could have done that much as an academic. I'm a pretty mediocre academic, I like getting my hands dirty a little bit more. 


What initially got me interested? I heard a talk where the speaker mentioned Michael [indistinct] and who tried to start a Freeport in Somaliland. And in fact, there is now a Freeport being built in Somaliland by Dubai Ports World in Berbera. And basically, what got me interested was I saw it as an Idea that has massive potential that not that many people were paying attention to and talking about and it got me really excited and so I stayed interested in it and sort of realized that I could have a meaningful contribution to making this, I think, really exciting idea take place. And that's why I've stayed interested in it. I like things that can have a big impact and to me, charter cities are one of the things that might be able to have the biggest impact in the 21st century and so it's quite exciting to be involved. 

TL: So how important is geography in the development of charter cities? I know proximity to ports is very important to facilitate trade. So, but how does it really feature in your own model?

: Sure, so geography is obviously quite important because - are you on a trading route? Is there an urbanising population that you can draw from? What are the industries that in the area that you can sort of help supplement? We typically think about locating a charter city has being independent on several factors. You probably want to be within about 2 hours of an urban centre so you can piggyback back off their infrastructure because building an airport or a port is very expensive, but if you are within two hours of them you can acquire a large enough chunk of land to build the city because one of the challenges of building a charter city is actually getting enough land to build the city itself. But if you're 2 hours away, you might be able to acquire enough land but you're still close enough that you can access their airport, that you can kind of access their labour market, that you'll allow for a bit more trade than would take place if you were in the middle of nowhere.

Like, you want to be on emerging trade routes. So for example, there's a lot of activities going on in East Africa right now. A lot of people are building ports there. That might be an opportunity for a charter city there. Thinking about how new technology might change sort of migration patterns. Maybe the Hyperloop comes, or maybe supersonic jets come, how does that change human sort of spatial organization? And then can you identify opportunities to locate cities because of that? There might be [an] opportunity for a charter city, for example, in Canada or maybe in Central Asia because Siberia and Northern Canada, with global warming, are going to open up and allow for more agriculture, for more natural resource extraction, things like that. So there will be a demand for people to live there and a new city might allow for it to become sort of a gateway to those respective regions. So basically looking at how human sort of trade and human migration patterns are occurring and then trying to identify those long-term trends and then build in a place that can take advantage of those trends to become a regional hub and provide services to the broader area.

TL: The reason I asked that question is this. Someone like Paul Romer I think in his paper with Brandon Fuller would say - you need to build X amount of cities to take the addition we're going to see to the number urban dwellers by the middle of the century. I think their own calculation added about 3 billion additional people living in cities. But someone like Alain Bertaud will say you may not really have that much quality location to do what you want to do, at least, to have the kind of effect that you have in mind. 

So does geography, giving that land is fixed...does geography limit the potential of [a] charter city in a way? 

ML: Yeah it could, but this is a question that I think is dependent on data. Alain says that most of the good ports have already been taken. He's probably true (right) about that too a certain extent, because humans being, sort of, social, commerce-oriented mammals will tend to live in areas that are advantageous for that. So a lot of the natural ports already, probably have some degree of human settlement there. And so many of the good locations for cities have probably or even taken, have all of them been taken? Probably not. History is weird and people make decisions based on, sort of, contextual circumstances that might have left some potential city locations just untouched because of this weird set of historical events. So this is something that I'm certainly interested in exploring more. It's a project that I would like to undertake. It's basically hire some people, and identify 50 potential locations for charter cities. Just like lookout where trade is happening, where urbanization is happening, where it is possible to acquire large chunks of land and identify basically 50 of these potential charter city locations to see, okay is the land available? Is it good? How easy is it to acquire? To answer questions like that, if any of your listeners are interested in helping out, with some donations, we can actually start getting this sort of concrete answer to that question.

TL: For the audience, I’m going to put up links to the reference guides from the Charter Cities Institute on the website and every other available resource. You wrote an article recently about America's foreign policy and how charter city can play a role in its geopolitical competition with China, specifically the belt and road initiative. Do you care to expatiate on that point?

ML: Sure, so I think if we look at, um... the US in some way still has a positive image even with the recent sort of killing/murder of George Floyd. We saw a global outcry of that because I think people rightly hold America to a higher standard versus the outcry that we saw of the sort of Uighur, basically, a genocide in China where people have kind of ignored that because I guess they expected [the] Chinese to do it to a certain extent. But American engagement with the rest of the world has, I think, left a little something to be desired over the last 40 years. Iraq was a disaster, Afghanistan is a disaster, Libya is a disaster, so I think there's a need for rethinking American engagement. Combined with the fact that China is pretty aggressively now pursuing their image on the global stage in terms of building infrastructure with belt and road, in terms of wooing foreign politicians, foreign leaders, to get them to be China's friend. So my article was aimed at… particularly people in the, for example, the Development Finance Corporation in The United States to hopefully get them to see charter cities as a potential way to offer a positive influence on the world. 

And while specifically, I think what American engagement could look like is having Americans who can help with governance, having Americans who can provide financing options if you use American contractors to help build the city, to help develop governance norms, to basically provide the supporting infrastructure for charter cities which I think are important because right now when developing countries are looking around the world, they think 'okay, what policies do we adopt? Who do we want to be like?' All of them are thinking like let's be like China. 

China has had tremendous economic growth over the last 40 years. They've lifted tens of millions of people out of poverty which is a great thing. Unfortunately, at the same time that's been coupled with a sort of lack of respect of human rights, with no democracy, with no freedom of speech, these things that are inimical to human flourishing, and they think because America has developed so long ago, the possibility of following a similar pattern to America's development is just outside of people's minds. And so I think what charter cities can hopefully help demonstrate is this sort of we call them American values, but I think they are universal values of things like freedom of toleration of markets really can work for everybody and can provide an alternative development model to the one that China is currently claiming. 

TL: Sticking with the US, I know you write about it, others write about it, are the institutional (I want to say rot. I don't know maybe that's the right word), you know, are they as bad as some analysts say it is, especially in the light of COVID-19?

ML: Yeah, I think it rot is probably an appropriate word. We basically have coasted the last kind of 40 years off of existing institutions. We haven't really been challenged. We haven't updated any of our systems. Everybody is complacent. If you think about it, part of the reason is that nobody has actually helped build an institution in the US. Rather, the most dynamic part of the economy is Silicon Valley because there are people there who are building new things. So people are required, to a certain extent, to have this like very broad set of managerial competencies that you don't need to have if you grow up... and I'm not just saying in government, in government you just develop these very specific set of skills, but also in a lot of large private corporations. How many new national banks have been invested in the last 30, 40 years? And so because of that, you grow up learning a very specific set of competencies which is OK in terms of like keeping the system going, but it means that anytime you're presented with an external shock, you just don't know how to react. 

And COVID was that shock, which I think exposed a lot of the existing inadequacies in the American system that people were unsure of, like unable to think outside the box. Our bureaucrats were quite skilled at figuring out how to pass the buck, how to not take responsibility for things. But they had no idea how to actually take responsibility and then how to actually enact change that will be beneficial. And we're seeing that continue today, you still can't buy N95 masks on Amazon, it's 3 months after the fact. This is a very solvable problem but our institutions are fundamentally broken and I think you can add that to the growing culture war where you have red states where a lot of people are refusing to wear masks because it's not a pandemic, it's a dempanic, this is a fake disease, really idiotic stuff like that. And then in blue states, you're seeing some of the elite institutions basically begin to eat themselves. The New York Times has basically been taken over by Social Justice Warriors staffers who sort of opposed an op-ed by Tom Cotton, the senator from, I think, Arkansas. And I didn't like that op-ed, it was a bad op-ed but he's a senator for goodness sakes. I mean, if you are the paper of record you should allow senators to publish sometimes even if you don't like their arguments. And so we're seeing this, sort of, I think deeply dysfunctional institutions combined with this deeply dysfunctional culture that will probably take decades or generation to really sort themselves out. There isn't a lot of sort of, I don't know, capacity left at the seams. Even the late 60s, '68 when we saw a similar social unrest, there was something solid. There was a core underneath and I think that core it's quite atrophied. I'm a little bit nervous about the future of the US. 

TL: And I mean it's interesting to me that you talked about Silicon Valley because, at least, from an outsider's perspective here, it amazes me how little political influence Silicon Valley has. 


And I have one analogy and I think I tweeted this though I got a lot of pushback here and there that I don't think, and I may be wrong about this... I don't think that the Koch Brothers, for example, would have struggled to build more housing in Silicon Valley. And we have people that are vastly richer than the Koch brothers in the Valley. I mean, what is going on? Why do they have so little political influence? They get railroaded even by the local government. 

ML: Yeah, I mean, I think that's a good question. One of my friends likes to joke that Silicon Valley thinks they're above politics, but in fact, they are below it. You've seen, I think, Apple pledged 2.5 billion dollars to affordable housing in the Bay Area. Microsoft, I think a billion to affordable housing in San Francisco, Mark Zuckerberg, I think, 500 million to affordable housing in the Bay Area. And like the problem is just that, okay, if you're spending half a billion dollars to put it crassly. Like just buy off the entire City Council and just tell them to legalise housing. And I think it's a sort of combination of historical circumstances. One is that because most of Silicon Valley is in the world of bits and not in atoms, they just haven't interacted with the government that much. So because of that, there was no need to really figure out how to work with government, it was like you ignore us, we ignore you. To use this sort of Chinese proverb - the emperor is far away, I'm on the other side of the country, and so they didn't really interact with the government that much, and because of that just saw it as kind of part of the ecosystem, not something that to pay attention to. I believe that is changing now.

I think Mark Zuckerberg's congressional hearing like a year ago was a wake-up call where the congressmen were asking Mark Zuckerberg, how do you turn on the iPhone? And it's like, OK, well, when you have the political leaders who are that disconnected with what is actually going on, there is a serious challenge. That being said, it will take a number of years for Silicon Valley to actually figure or politics out. There is, I think, several challenges involved in that. One, I think Silicon Valley has a bias towards nonprofits, they figure if something is a good idea, you should be able to make money off it. But nonprofits are a kind of integral parts of influencing government. Second is Silicon Valley likes things that scale. Government necessarily doesn't really scale. At least it doesn't scale in the same manner that a technology startup does and so because of that you have to put all of these resources in, to help mobilize people, to help create a network, to help influence things and you're unable to tell whether it's actually working for a long period of time. So the technology startup, right, okay, you work for a year, you get product-market fit. After product-market fit, you grow at 10 per cent month over month for a period of like three years or something. So if you're growing 10 per cent month over month, you can see it's working, you can see something is happening. While with politics, you might pay activists on the ground, you might pay lobbyists, but it might take years before you actually see legislation that's even proposed, much less implemented. And most of Silicon Valley just doesn't really operate on those...they're not used to those time horizons and so they're unwilling to sort of put the resources necessary to actually engage them. 

Now I think a third reason is that Silicon Valley is very, I don't has a very universal mindset. So New York, if you look at New York, all the high net worth people in New York, When they donate to charity, they typically donate to New York charities. So they donate to the Met, they donate to Central Park. They get status by paying for things in New York City, so you have all of these goods supported by basically the billionaire class in New York. In San Francisco, people get status by doing universal things. So the effect of altruist movement, for example, is quite popular in San Francisco. But these universal things, while I think they have a great impact on humanity because you don't get status by helping to improve housing in the city, there just isn't as much focus on the city itself, it's a little bit neglected and so there hasn't been this (the) same mobilization of Silicon Valley elite to coordinate to help fix the city as with New York where the elite do spend a lot more money on improving the city's quality of life. 

: That's interesting. I hope they wake up and they get it right.

ML: Me too.

TL: Final question, Mark. Ten years from now, if you're looking back at all these things you're working on, particularly charter cities, what do you hope to have achieved? 

ML: Yeah, in ten years I figure we probably [indistinct words] three dozens or so charter cities that are either up and running or are like in advanced planning stages. In ten years, probably a few million people living in charter cities and with the potential population to reach 10s of millions. I want charter cities to be sort of understood and discussed at every world forum, like the World Economic Forum. All these, like, sort of highfalutin events. I want them to be part of the language, like right now, for example, if we think about International Development there are some themes that come up all the time. I think gender equality and global warming kind of pervade every discussion, as well as randomized control trials, they all pervade every discussion about development, I want to charter cities to help pervade those discussions and not just pervade those discussions but actually be improving people's lives on the ground. 

TL. Yeah. That's a goal I can get behind. Thank you very much, Mark, and I wish you all the best. 

ML: Thank you for having me.

Ideas Untrapped
Ideas Untrapped
a podcast about ideas on growth, progress, and prosperity