Two and a half days into the TED conference in Oxford, and after any number of eclectic 18 minute speeches (and an equal number of “what do you make of it all” chats during breaks), a genuinely fascinating idea arrives: neo colonialism.
Paul Romer is an economist, lauded in macroeconomics for coming up with a theory which largely replaced the traditional account of the way in which economies grow, known as the Solow Model. The original idea was that economies grew steadily, while occasionally technologies and other external factors dropped from the sky to increase growth. Romer found a theory which allowed, instead, that ideas and knowledge to become an integral part of the theory in which growth happens. He became famous; and is warmly received at conferences like this (despite only a vague link to his equations) because it seems to be an economic explanation of the benefits of having lots of people who deal only in ideas.
This morning he gave a talk on a completely different topic, outlining a vision for he called “Charter cities”, the short version of which is (despite the fact that he denied it) a form voluntary re-colonisation.
The gist of the idea was to follow China’s example of Hong Kong, giving birth to special economic zones, giving birth to coastal capitalism – a model which he thinks combined a way of adopting more growth-friendly rules at a pace to suit a developing economy. The suggestion is that other countries should follow suit: Cuba might choose to allow Canada to take over Guantanamo, or an African country could allow a consortium of international countries to develop new cities in coastal areas. His ultimate call was for so many such cities that they would hold a billion people, a radical and potentially troubling vision. When asked whether the idea was mad, or exciting, the audience at TED went for “exciting” by a ratio of 99:1. It wasn’t clear quite how mad an idea would have to be to break that ratio.