Edinburgh: A Rogue City in the Making

As tensions mount over Scottish independence, will the city of Edinburgh forge its own path?

Cities are the world’s biggest drivers of economic growth, yet they’re governed, for the most part, by the national powers that enclose them. Year after year, this uncomfortable relationship causes increasing tension between cities and states. So what happens when those cities go rogue in response?

Rogue cities are municipalities that begin to operate independently of the countries that govern them. These rebels look beyond national boundaries to form autonomous power blocks that bypass the usual avenues of power and decision-making. Think Hong Kong, Taipei, and increasingly, Barcelona. We’re seeing more and more of these misfit metropolises—and the UK could soon have one of its very own. Edinburgh.

OK. I need to put my cards on the table here. I’m an Aberdeen girl, but Edinburgh has been my adopted home for nearly two decades. I’m invested in this city, in all senses of the word. While running and founding Edinburgh-based businesses, I’ve grown increasingly awed by the talent density and warmth of this city’s industry.

So it’s not surprising to me that Edinburgh has long been known as a global leader in financial services and asset management. The city is home to sandboxes and accelerators from major banks and insurance firms, not to mention world-class coding, blockchain, and data science skills. I speak from personal experience when I say that Edinburgh’s design, fintech, and entrepreneurial communities are among the most powerful and forward-thinking in the world. I’m proud to be a part of them. 

Yet it is for these reasons perhaps that Edinburgh has become—in macrocosm—an example of the power shifts ramping up worldwide. As home to the Scottish Parliament, the city is at the forefront of a battle for more control of the local economy and more influence over decision-making—reflecting tensions that are reaching a breaking point in other great cities around the world.

The growing city-state divide

Examples of these tensions are everywhere. 

Last year, millions of pro-democracy activists brought the city of Hong Kong to a standstill as they protested against interference from mainland China. October saw violent protests kick off in Barcelona when Spanish courts punished former lawmakers for supporting Catalonian independence. We even saw an unsuccessful attempt to oust the city of Chicago from the US state of Illinois.

In Edinburgh, too, there have been questions over the city’s relationship with the UK and Westminster. While riot police were kettling protesters in Barcelona, more than 20,000 demonstrators marched through the streets of Edinburgh asking for Scottish independence. It made for an odd symmetry, with the same questions of sovereignty and self-determination being asked on Las Ramblas as on The Royal Mile. Indeed, in contrast to the most recent referendum, polls show the majority of Scots now support independence.

It becomes clearer and clearer, then, that governance and policymaking are not aligned between Westminster and Edinburgh. I don’t believe I’m taking a radical position when I say that the attitudes and economic needs of Edinburgh’s residents are diverging from those in, say, Bristol, Bradford, or Birmingham. 

A material change in circumstances

It’s no secret that Scotland wanted to remain in the EU. In Edinburgh, a massive 74.4% of people voted to remain, compared with 62% across Scotland as a whole. There are many explanations for why views on the EU differed so starkly between England and Scotland. In Edinburgh, though, reliance on migrants was a significant factor.

The Scottish capital has experienced unprecedented growth over the past decade. The city’s population swelled 13.2% between 2008 to 2018 with overseas migration as the biggest contributor. With an ageing population, Edinburgh is facing higher demand for services, against the backdrop of a shrinking workforce. An open-arms approach to EU migration offers a clear solution: but neither Edinburgh nor Holyrood has the power to make that policy a reality.

I worked with Derek Wyatt for the first time back in 2015 when he was chair of London’s Royal Trinity Hospice. He has chaired several UK charities and was an MP at Westminster for 13 years, where he focused on media, innovation and technology. He believes that Scotland’s focus should be on its cities, and Edinburgh in particular, as it attempts to define a path of independence:

“If you want to strive for global excellence, as Scotland should, you have to enfranchise the cities. Of course, you’ll always face resistance to the devolving of power to cities because of the perception that rural areas might be left behind. But many of the issues that matter most to people—health, transport, jobs and opportunities—are best tackled from the urban centres."

As Scotland itself strives for independence, perhaps Edinburgh should strive for something else: a path beyond national structures that forges connections with other rebel cities internationally.

Luckily, there’s no need to start from scratch. A variety of city-to-city networks already exist, and they’re a great place to start.

Leapfrogging the nation-state

Pieter van de Glind is the co-founder of one such network. The Sharing Cities Alliance facilitates collaboration and develops policy solutions for cities as they navigate transformative technologies. Van de Glind believes there’s value just waiting to be unlocked for cities, whether large or small, that are willing to leapfrog nation-states to share knowledge and tactics:

“The barrier to entry for collaborating across different geographies is gone, and cities are increasingly aware that trying to solve problems and make progress in silo is unproductive. This is where city networks can help. The world’s most connected cities might be part of 10 or even 20 networks, each focusing on a different topic. From those relationships, come new possibilities and powers—to negotiate, to take collective action, to rebel.”

Once again, I return to Barcelona. Existing at the centre of the Catalan independence movement, it’s a city with an eye on the future of democracy and technology. Francesca Bria, Barcelona’s Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer, has been outspoken about the need to look beyond the Spanish state to restore technological sovereignty to citizens. In 2017, Bria took things a step further. She launched a “network of rebel cities”—more than 180 of them—to catalyse the future of open democracy and data regulation while establishing Barcelona as a “laboratory for democratic innovation”.

Spain’s national government has been quieter on such issues—and helpless to stop such a collective of cities leading the way. Singapore, Hong Kong and Barcelona have spent recent decades going it alone, struggling against both national governments and global forces as they try to protect the interests of their residents. City-to-city collaboration networks are looking more and more like the shortcut to self-determination and global prominence rebel cities are searching for. 

Even as more governments shift towards protectionism and isolation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, rogue cities like Edinburgh can become leaders of a new age: an era where hyper-connected and interdependent metropolises bridge the gaps between competing nation-states. An era of local globalisation.

An era where a Scottish rebel like Edinburgh will surely feel right at home.

An insider look at Nile’s futures practice

Our practice director Neil Collman recently ran a Goodbye Faster Horses session on Pragmatic Futurism for Today’s Designers. It was an insider look at how we run our Futures Practice in Nile.

View the presentation here

As always, many thanks to Lauren Razavi for research and copyediting support, and Robyn Johnston for her illustrations

If you enjoyed this story, sign up below to receive the rest of our Future Cities Scotland series straight to your inbox: