The COVID crisis has forced us to change how we move, work, and communicate. How might this push us to realize otherwise-overlooked possibilities of association?

In work, at home, and throughout the spaces in between, the COVID crisis is forcing us to grapple with the impact of our own actions on the collective. As the traditional nature of work and interpersonal association becomes dangerous, we are forced to think about the adaptability of our cities, companies, and networks.

Venture capitalist Ali Yahya’s string of tweets that “A crypto network is more like a city than it is like a firm” speaks to the striking similarities between cities and cryptonetworks. In a basic sense, they are both bottom up entities founded on basic rules; the built-form of the city, like the operating rules of a crypto network, make up the entity’s “plane of immanence”; on that plane, individuals can freely form personal and professional networks without the aid of regulating bodies.

Whether intentional or not, Yahya’s tweet tapped into a geographic debate which goes back some forty years. In their ground-breaking book A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri explained that systems can best be defined as an “assemblage” of interchangeable parts existing and moving in relation to each other.

Many geographers have embraced this framework to explain the diverse and decentralized nature of cities. In his paper “Powerful Assemblages?”, geographer John Allen explains that the city, should be viewed as a “powerful arrangement that hangs together as an assorted heterogenous mix of power and authority.” The city is porous, flexible, and malleable; it mirrors the web of relations spun on it’s canvas.

The City’s Digital Cousin

If a city is an assemblage of entities and organizations, a crypto network is its digital cousin. What is a crypto network if not an association of individuals on a common plane? The decentralized nature of blockchain technology makes it so that individuals can collaborate and create value without the help of state governments and central banks; the rules of the game are enforced through the plane itself. In collaborative work platforms built on the blockchain, such as Colony, we see this framework fleshed out. In the Colony Network, a Metacolony ensures the functioning of the network. But individuals are free to form their own “colonies'' in the same way as individuals in a city start businesses, collaborate on projects, or form social groups without planners or officials.

Just like a planner facilitates network-formation through transportation, zoning, and development, the Metacolony ensures the smooth operation of the network. But the Metacolony doesn’t run individual colonies any more than an urban planner would decide whether a chef and an event space want to collaborate on a pop-up; the planner’s role is simply to create the conditions for such associations to happen.

It is telling that cities survive even when regimes are overthrown, explains Yahya; “cities die when the last person leaves; crypto networks die when the last individual stops running the protocol”. Both cities and crypto networks are only as organic, cosmopolitan, and collaborative as the individuals that shape their existence.

COVID Co-ordination

For evidence of decentralized networks’ potential, we need look no further than our own neighbourhoods. In recent months, we have seen urban residents collectively organize to aid individuals who are self-isolating or in need of supplies. Density and numbers, key components of cities, are crucial in such networks’ success.

Cities also make it easier to treat large groups of people by eliminating the transport costs associated with bringing individuals to treatment centres. Moreover, herd immunity, the development of which (it is hoped) will end the crisis, develops faster in cities; while cities might catalyse transmission, they may also facilitate its demise.

Similarly, in a time where face-to-face meeting is dangerous, crypto networks show great promise for organizing collective tasks without the need for personal interaction; collaborators merely need common goals and a medium through which to organize.

Democratizing Association

More than anything, COVID has thrown us into new routines; those new routines force us to rethink the spaces we inhabit, and how we interact in them. How can we work together when we can’t be in spatial proximity? How can we form friendships, networks, and connections without the organic opportunities that cities present?

Stopping our routines has allowed us to reimagine how we move, work, and socialise. This goes well beyond the scope of work, as concerts, lectures, and parties move online (and are recorded). Similarly, many city governments seem to be taking the opportunity to make cities less friendly towards private cars, reclaiming the concrete for pedestrians and cyclists; whether or not these changes stick, planners and residents are asking fundamental questions about how cities should operate. Whether we realise or not, we are lowering and removing spatial, economic, and time-dependent barriers of accessibility.

More broadly, in a world where everyone is an outsider, might our collaborations become more organic and accessible? In this sense, cities and crypto networks are models of the new structures which our associations can take. COVID, it seems, is merely pushing us to realise the potential beneath our paving stones.

Colony is a platform for community collaboration—do work, make decisions, and manage money, together.

Join the conversation on Discord, follow us on Twitter, sign up for (occasional and awesome) email updates, or if you’re feeling old-skool, drop us an email.