City-states never disappeared: Hamburg, Hong Kong, Singapore
My list

Author | Marcos Martínez

The term city-state dates back to ancient history. Although the Sumerian city-states of Uruk or Lagash (5,000 BC) are very different to the Singapore or Hong Kong of today, the underlying concept is the same: the city has autonomy and it is the state.

However, there is a notable difference between the past and the present: city-states of today are not self-sufficient. They depend on external commerce. There are also notable differences and similarities between them: from cities that are thousands of years old such as Hamburg, to the “new” cities with metropolitan areas covering wide insular territories, such as Singapore.

Hamburg, a “free city” since records began

The history of Hamburg (Germany) is interesting insofar as a small space covering only a few square kilometres has managed to preserve its autonomy, while also forming part of a state such as Germany. This is the example of how the identity of a sufficient part of the population can establish pressure to endure, for centuries.

In 1189, the Holy Germanic Roman Emperor granted the city the status of Free Imperial City, a status that it has managed to maintain (with changes) through various reigns and governing systems. What is now known as the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg survived:

  • The German Confederation (1815-1866),
  • The North German Federation (1866-1871),
  • The German Empire (1871-1918),
  • The Weimar Republic (1919-1933),
  • Nazi Germany (1934-1945),
  • The British occupation (1945-1949),
  • The German Federal Republic.

hamburgo-city-state-2

Today, the city-state of Hamburg is also one of Germany’s sixteen federated states. Its fighting nature has enabled this city-state to stand the test of time and in good health. Nominated in 2018 for the European Capital of Innovation awards funded by the European Commission, its population has managed to organise itself (without the help of politicians) forming the Smart City Hamburg.

But when the civil population and political classes work together, goals can be achieved such as not having the Google assistant inside households (town hall press release); or becoming beacons of urban innovation. This is the case of the Wilhelmsburg district, with 180 eco-houses in early 2011, or the BIQ building, with a micro-algae façade to generate energy.

Hong Kong, “special administrative region”

The city of Hong Kong has been capturing the headlines since June 2019, mainly because its inhabitants identify it as an independent city-state. Formally it is a “special administrative region” of the People’s Republic of China, but in reality, it is a bubble of economic and political liberalism within the boundaries of the Asian giant.

In 1984, the British and Chinese governments agreed to the handover of Hong Kong, ending years of British colonial rule, but the city would not automatically change over to the communist regime. Instead, five decades of economic liberalism and special rules, still in force today, were agreed. As a result, Hong Kong is a western city-state with rights that do not exist in continental China.

hong-kong-city-state

One of these rights was the lack of extradition treaties from Hong Kong to the rest of China, at least until it was published by Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, on 29 March 2019. Two days later, for the first time in decades, the city experienced civil protests against the Chinese regime, and on the date of preparing this article, the first general strike has been held in 50 years.

Hong Kong has become an accidental urban laboratory. Its Smart City policies under the Blueprint seal are drenched in the use of technology as a tool for defence and attack. The video below shows how citizens are protesting armed with lasers to prevent the cameras using facial recognition software with AI.

@alessabocchi Tweet

Another video shows thousands of euros in cash (local currency) strewn over public transport ticket dispensing machines. The Hong Kong people organise themselves to remain anonymous in the areas closest to the protests, since digital currency could pose a threat. Public attitude here illustrates its critical role in defining and maintaining the city-state as a concept.

Singapore, firmly committed to technology

The city-state of Singapore is an interesting territory, not just because of its complexity (it has four official languages -Chinese, English, Malay and Tamil- and dozens of religions). Also because of the way they have technified society and become a global power and leaders in technology, development or education, starting out as a poor island without any natural resources.

Today, Singapore is the city with the highest number of trees per square metre in the world, which benefits its five million inhabitants; the first city in the world in which autonomous mobility was tested (2016 with the nuTonomy taxi); and the only major city with a highly developed digital twin using semantic modelling.

singapore-city-state

But it wasn’t always like that. In 1963 it gained independence from the United Kingdom and went on to form part of the Malaysian Federation, a brief romance that lasted two years. With few resources and an even further impoverished situation as a result of World War II, on 9 August 1965, the city-state was created with the firm intention of innovating and investing in technology. The consequences of that decision can be seen today.

Despite its size and budget, Singapore now occupies the seventh position on the Cities in Motion Report, which seeks to establish the level of smartness of cities. During the last edition of the Smart City Expo World Congress 2018, Singapore received the award for the smartest city in the world and it was described as having “undoubtedly become a global beacon of the urban transformation and how to implement smart urban solutions”.

City-states, do they have a future?

It just so happens that the three city-states analysed in this brief article were British colonies. But of course, what city in the world wasn’t at some point a colony of Spain, Holland, France or Portugal? The three are also port cities, but not all city-states share the same elements. San Marino, Monaco, the Vatican City…

It is interesting how, in a world in which countries tend to generate partnerships with one another (European Union, BRICS, G20…), the city-states that still remain as such, are more prosperous environments than the states that surround them. The fact that they are places that value civil rights, respect for culture and the impact of technology on quality of life, could be food for thought.

Images | iStock/Canetti, Jonas Tebbe, iStock/tampatra, iStock/kurmyshov

Related content
Regional Government of Barcelona: this is how a smart region works
Regional Government of Barcelona: this is how a smart region works
1x01 Are our cities more resilient than ever?
1x01 Are our cities more resilient than ever?
Barcelona’s strategy to drive the 2030 Agenda in the city
Barcelona’s strategy to drive the 2030 Agenda in the city
Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole: cities become smarter by forming smart regions
Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole: cities become smarter by forming smart regions
Pablo Soto, regional representative of Transparency and Participation in Madrid: “Technology should be used to enhance institutions”
Pablo Soto, regional representative of Transparency and Participation in Madrid: “Technology should be used to enhance institutions”
Metropolitan governance: extending municipal governments as a response to new urban challenges
Metropolitan governance: extending municipal governments as a response to new urban challenges
How to go from being a town to a Smart Town
How to go from being a town to a Smart Town
The G20 creates the Global Smart Cities Alliance to establish universal norms and guidelines for the implementation of technology
The G20 creates the Global Smart Cities Alliance to establish universal norms and guidelines for the implementation of technology
Paul Duan, co-founder and President of Bayes Impact: “We should trust in the power of the multitude”
Paul Duan, co-founder and President of Bayes Impact: “We should trust in the power of the multitude”
Open government and citizen participation: a journey through history - Infographic
Open government and citizen participation: a journey through history - Infographic
Pontus Westerberg, UN-Habitat:
Pontus Westerberg, UN-Habitat: "People need to be allowed to offer their own solutions to the problems in the places in which they live"
How and why do cities die?
How and why do cities die?
Digital natives, technological illiterates?
Digital natives, technological illiterates?
New COVID-19 outbreaks: this is what the hammer and the dance will be like
New COVID-19 outbreaks: this is what the hammer and the dance will be like
Citizens policing our streets: is it lawful to report the inappropriate use of cities?
Citizens policing our streets: is it lawful to report the inappropriate use of cities?
Smart cities that failed along the way
Smart cities that failed along the way
Can technology foster democracy?
Can technology foster democracy?
Welcome to the Smart City Live!
Welcome to the Smart City Live!
What makes a city attractive to talent?
What makes a city attractive to talent?
Imec: Open digital twin framework
Imec: Open digital twin framework
x-tention: Towards post covid-19 smart tourism
x-tention: Towards post covid-19 smart tourism
Arca: Wave control for better health
Arca: Wave control for better health
Smart Buildings: Enabling reliability and resilience for a better future
Smart Buildings: Enabling reliability and resilience for a better future
DMAP: Unlocking the power of transportation analytics
DMAP: Unlocking the power of transportation analytics
These were the urban utopias that preceded us - Infographic
These were the urban utopias that preceded us - Infographic
Medellín: data and infrastructures in contrast to its troubled past
Medellín: data and infrastructures in contrast to its troubled past
2030 Agenda and Urban Agenda for Catalonia: from Strategy into Practice
2030 Agenda and Urban Agenda for Catalonia: from Strategy into Practice
How smart cities are contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals
How smart cities are contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals
From Crisis to Opportunity: Transforming European Cities in the COVID Era
From Crisis to Opportunity: Transforming European Cities in the COVID Era
Cities as Testbeds for Innovation
Cities as Testbeds for Innovation
Smart Cities Germany – an emerging market for urban technologies providers
Smart Cities Germany – an emerging market for urban technologies providers
CIOs as linking pins: bridging IT and European digital policy for smart cities
CIOs as linking pins: bridging IT and European digital policy for smart cities
Barcelona Smart Region: innovative projects to improve connectivity and sustainability
Barcelona Smart Region: innovative projects to improve connectivity and sustainability
Barcelona Smart Region: providing smart services for citizens
Barcelona Smart Region: providing smart services for citizens
Bournemouth Christchurch & Poole: The New Smart Place
Bournemouth Christchurch & Poole: The New Smart Place
City-states never disappeared: Hamburg, Hong Kong, Singapore
City-states never disappeared: Hamburg, Hong Kong, Singapore
G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance – Launching the Policy Roadmap
G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance – Launching the Policy Roadmap
Reinventing Cities with Technology after COVID-19 – Unpacking ideas from Japan
Reinventing Cities with Technology after COVID-19 – Unpacking ideas from Japan
AdvanGrid: Staying ahead in the energy transition
AdvanGrid: Staying ahead in the energy transition
Neareo: Powering QR codes
Neareo: Powering QR codes
People-focused Smart Cities: Urban Digital Transformation Working for the Benefit of All
People-focused Smart Cities: Urban Digital Transformation Working for the Benefit of All
Strengthening Metropolitan Governance
Strengthening Metropolitan Governance
Economic and social recovery leaving no one behind
Economic and social recovery leaving no one behind
Adopting Technologies Responsibly: a Global Policy Roadmap for Ethical Smart Cities
Adopting Technologies Responsibly: a Global Policy Roadmap for Ethical Smart Cities
Smart Villages & Territories
Smart Villages & Territories
The Global Voice of Cities
The Global Voice of Cities
Urban Water Management: Making every drop count
Urban Water Management: Making every drop count
Usitoo4cities: Reinventing consumption
Usitoo4cities: Reinventing consumption
Smart Pedestrian Crosswalk: Walking the city more safely
Smart Pedestrian Crosswalk: Walking the city more safely
Smartnodes: Realizing smart cities through smart lighting
Smartnodes: Realizing smart cities through smart lighting
Recommended profiles for you
Remember to activate your profile to network!
Activate profile
RG
Rudolf Giffinger
TU Wien
head of research group on urban and regional development
maria camila rojas guzman
maria camila rojas guzman
sevencom
Sevencom
Francesco AMARI
Francesco AMARI
REALIZ3D - Groupe MyCloud3D
Partner
MG
Ma Cecilia Gutierrez
Universidad Nacional de Rafaela
Director of the Department of Society State and Government
Ronit Purian
Ronit Purian
Tel Aviv University
Data science, behavioral and social aspects in the smart city
Gaston Massari Copes
Gaston Massari Copes
Gobernanza NGO
President and founder. Specialist in linkage of new technologies and governments. Speaker
Miguel Aristizabal
Miguel Aristizabal
We.City
CEO and Founder
Paula Mèlich
Paula Mèlich
Tomorrow.City
Strategic Alliances & Partnerships Lead
JJ
Jaime Vergara Jaime
Ciclo
Partner
DB
Daniel Borges dos Santos
STRATEGIC CONSULTING INTERNATIONAL
Buenas tardes Soy Director para Desarrollo de Negócio Mi empresa está dispuesta a apoiar
Eduard Dumitrascu
Eduard Dumitrascu
Romanian Smart City Association
President
JM
Jose Luis Mira Montaraz
Telemira, S.L.
Dirección
Marcin Rozycki
Marcin Rozycki
UM Kielce
My competences include education, culture, sport, health and the City Service Center.
Juan Manuel Villalba
Juan Manuel Villalba
Mendoza BITS
Especialista en Ciudades
MF
Martín Ferrer Escobar
i2CAT
Junior Consultant
An
Allak nabedrik
Moscow export center
-
Chivu Virgil
Chivu Virgil
Kaercher Romania
Project Manager
RG
Raffaele Gareri
City of Rome
Chief Digital Officer
RICARDO HENRIQUE DE ARAUJO  IMAMURA
RICARDO HENRIQUE DE ARAUJO IMAMURA
ADVISORS COMMITTEE
CEO
KK
Kepa Korta Murua
Oficina de Estrategia de Donostia / San Sebastián
City Council of Donostia / San Sebastián

Only accessible for registered users
This content is available only for registered users
TO: $$toName$$
SUBJECT: Message from $$fromName$$