Human beings may love the idea of a shortcut — but shortcuts almost never work. As Actor Gary Busey once said, "If you take shortcuts, you get cut short." (An unlikely source, I know, but a point that most of us would probably agree with.)
But that doesn't stop us from looking for better, faster routes. Paul Romer is a groundbreaking economist-turned-tech exec whose company, Aplia, brought a new model to the education system via digital textbooks. He has an idea he thinks could be a fast-lane for developing countries: the charter cities campaign, something he's been working on since 2008.
The model for the idea is Hong Kong — a city that was set up in a remarkable way. Even though it's in China, it wasn't run under Chinese economic rules. The city grew to its current form starting with a 99-year lease signed during the Victorian era, which kept it under British law through 1997. Hong Kong has continued since then as an "autonomous territory." While China is responsible for its military defense and foreign affairs, the city has its own government, as well as independent legal, customs and monetary systems. Over the years, the city has drawn in a certain kind of person, and the special rules there have allowed those people to flourish. Those who wanted to compete in a place with minimal regulations ended up making incomes 10 times the Chinese national average. Based on the success in Hong Kong, China twent on to create similar "special economic zones" throughout the country, the first of which was Shenzhen City.
Romer's idea is that Hong Kong's separate city-within-a-country idea could work just as well today. By creating special zones with specific long-term economic goals within larger countries, struggling nations could compete. He explains more about his idea in this TED Talk:
Romer has met with intrigued leaders of countries like Madagascar. But, as he has learned, a plan as large as this one requires a significant, organized, long-term commitment not just from a country's leader, but from all branches of government. Ultimately, after years of talks, the Madagascar attempt failed when the country's leader was overthrown during a coup. But Romer still thinks his idea has merit:
“You have to find a place where there’s a strong enough leader with enough legitimacy to do this knowing that he’s going to get attacked. It narrows the options quite a bit. But we shouldn’t give up without trying a few more places,” Romer told The Atlantic.
Not everyone's a fan of the concept
The concept has plenty of detractors, including those who see it as neo-colonial and some who say it's even neo-medieval. The only working example of the idea is, after all, Hong Kong, which was set up under the last days of British colonial rule. Bringing new government, money, laws and business development to one part of a country at the exclusion of other areas isn't very democratic, and it leaves out the rest of the country's people in the race to compete in a global market.
“Romer makes it sound as though setting up a charter city is like setting up a fairground,” Elliott Sclar, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University, told The Atlantic. “We take a clear piece of land, we turn on the bright lights, and we create this separate environment that will stand apart from everything that’s around it. I wish it were that simple.”
The idea of simply plopping down a new city based on ideas and rules from other places also dismisses the native intelligence of the people who live there already, which is sure to frustrate the local population. What if they could come up with something better, based on the circumstances unique to where they live? Or maybe the idea of a charter city could work, but wouldn't it make more sense if the ideas and rules for it came from the ground up, rather than the top down?
It comes down to the simple question: Does an outsider really know what's best for a country? It's a huge risk to spend millions of dollars for a scheme that might work, when that money could go toward more proven programs, like educating girls, empowering women business owners, ensuring access to electricity and the internet and upgrading sanitation to keep diseases at bay.
But Romer is still working to sell the idea to other countries, many in Africa. He thinks the short-cut charter cities idea could work.
"I think the impossible can be done," he told The Atlantic.