Free Cities are such a new concept that they are still in the process of being defined in practice. As a result, there are many questions about which existing cities, communities, or territories can be called Free Cities. The same question applies to cities, communities, or settlements now being built or planned.
Recently, the concept of Network States has made these questions even more complex. The publication of Balaji Srinivasan’s book The Network State has generated massive amounts of discussion. The Network State website lists hundreds of book reviews.
Balaji Srinivasan’s The Network State
Balaji’s one-sentence definition of the network state is
“…a highly aligned online community with a capacity for collective action that crowdfunds territory around the world and eventually gains diplomatic recognition from pre-existing states.”
Yet, the book develops a much more complicated definition of his vision.
In a long and influential review, Vitalik Buterin offers a slightly different definition:
“communities organized around a particular vision of how to run their own society that start off as online clubs, but then build up more and more of a presence over time and eventually become large enough to seek political autonomy or even diplomatic recognition.”
The differences between the visions of Balaji and Vitalik illustrate the complex nature of the questions. Although they both support the basic concept of creating a community online that would eventually exist as a physical jurisdiction, they differ in many details. The physical jurisdictions that would ultimately exist would not only operate with different rules but would offer varying amounts of freedom in different areas of life.
The Free Cities Foundation defines Free Cities as self-governing territories that uphold individual rights and freedoms. Under that definition, Network States are not Free Cities until they establish a physical presence in a region. Yet the fact that they intend to become self-governing territories eventually rather than only virtual communities makes them fellow travelers with Free Cities.
“A Network State in the real world,” imagined by Midjourney AI
Network States are of particular interest because they intend to gain complete autonomy from existing nation-states. In the present day, one would be hard-pressed to find many such territories anywhere on the planet. Instead, there are tiny territories that are known as microstates, like Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino, besides island micronations such as Palau or Tuvalu, that are fully sovereign are almost completely independent. However, they are not considered Free Cities because, even if they offer more individual rights and freedoms than most nation-states, their traditional forms of governance are not explicitly focused on this goal.
Free Cities typically operate under different norms or rules than the surrounding territory, but they exist on a continuum of autonomy. They can range from the semi-autonomy of the ZEDEs (Zones of Employment and Economic Development) in Honduras to intentional communities that enjoy de facto but not de jure independence based on their shared community values.
Network States exist on a different continuum. They might be classified by the varying degrees of their virtual versus physical properties. In addition, they can be categorized by their goals or primary interests, similar to the purposes of intentional communities. The main thing they have in common with Free Cities is the desire to increase human flourishing by innovating in self-governance.
“Aerial photo, a freedom-oriented Network State,” imagined by Midjourney AI
At the time of this writing, lists are being compiled of Free Cities by the Free Cities Foundation, Network States by 1729 (publisher of The Network State) and Startup Cities by The Adrianople Group. Interestingly, there is some overlap in both the criteria and examples on these lists. For example, the ZEDE Próspera is included on all three lists, and several entities are on two out of the three lists.
There are such a wide variety of projects on these three lists that it would be hard to define criteria that include all entries. However, most are for-profit; most are innovative in governance and technology; most are very new; and most that appear on only one list could be included on at least one other.
Próspera in Honduras is arguably the most well-known example of a Free City that is also a Startup City and could be called a Network State. It already owns a territory with a significant degree of legally recognized autonomy. It is being constructed on a greenfield site with residences, businesses, and community buildings. It is introducing innovations in governance, law, and technology. It is listed as a Network State because its e-residence program allows virtual residence without physical residence.
Ciudad Morazán in Honduras shares many of the characteristics of Próspera but offers different innovations and doesn’t include e-residence, so it appears on only two of the lists.
Culdesac Tempe in Arizona is a very different community from the Honduran ZEDEs, but it could be included in all three lists. It is an intentional community built around walkability with innovations in living together. Apparently, it is listed as a Network State because it is recruiting residents online.
A lesser-known project that has broken ground but hasn’t been actively recruiting online is Liberstad, a remote settlement in Norway innovating its internal economy, intending to become a private city.
Unlike the Startup Cities that have already broken ground, Atlas Island and Praxis are still in the early stages of attracting online communities to build physical territories eventually. Atlas Island plans to build on a seastead and Praxis on the Mediterranean coast. Like many other proposed Network States, these focus on innovation and freedom.
Some projects listed on the Network State Dashboard as startup societies are less ambitious than building new cities. For example, Kift is an organization that uses its website to combine community and van life to create a new way of living. However, it has no intention of becoming an autonomous jurisdiction.
Several others, such as Cabin and Cohere, are building networks online for co-living and co-working in different locations. Still others, like CityDAO and Nation 3, are building online digital communities around crypto technology.
Several new Network States have ambitious plans to unite dispersed populations worldwide through virtual communities. Two examples are Afropolitan, which aims to bring together Africans and the diaspora, and Network State Panarmenian Foundation, which aims to bring together Armenians and their diaspora.
Construction of Duna Residences in Próspera, Honduras. Photo from late 2022.
Network States can become Free Cities if they acquire territory and some level of autonomy, either de jure or de facto, as long as they focus on promoting individual rights and freedoms. If their aspirations include those elements, they are fellow travelers alongside the Free Cities movement. However, some projects that might be classified as Network States have little relation to Free Cities because of their focus on only virtual communities or digital technology that doesn’t increase individual liberty.