This essay was originally published at lraz.io/minimum-viable-state. Follow me @LaurenRazavi on Twitter and subscribe to my Counterflows newsletter about digital nomads, remote work, and borderless living.
At the end of 2020, an interesting invitation arrived in my inbox. The email came from SafetyWing, a health insurance company for travelers with the ambition to take Norway’s social safety net global. The team was bringing together a group of remote workers and digital nomads to work on a project. It was called Plumia, and they wanted me to join the founding team. The goal? To build the infrastructure of a country on the internet.
The internet has made the experience of finance, shopping, socializing, lending, and borrowing seamless and intuitive. But participation as a citizen? That’s much less attractive. As the democracy activist Pia Mancini summarises in her 2014 TED Talk:
“We are 21st-century citizens doing our very best to interact with 19th century-designed institutions built with an information technology of the 15th century. It is up to us to design the political and economic systems for the internet generation.”
The world’s power structures need to catch up with the tools. Most governments are late to the game and resistant to digital transformation. Yet the global competition for citizens is heating up and the way people move around the world is changing. This shift is already visible in remote work visas and US talent incentives: A reimagined approach to opportunity, prosperity, and freedom fuelled by knowledge and mobility.
There are Chinatowns all over the world. We’re all familiar with the idea of ethnic diasporas and globalized culture connecting people with each other and the motherland. An internet country is a “reverse diaspora”: a community that forms first on the internet, builds a culture online, and then comes together to build dwellings and structures offline.
I’m part of a global community that finds itself — quite accidentally — in the ideal position to mature into an internet country: digital nomads.
An Internet Country 💻
Stanford lecturer Balaji S. Srinivasan argues that we’re ready to build the first countries on the internet. They’ll be cross-border, open source projects with economies built around remote work, civility towards others, and new culture to support their values.
An internet country doesn’t need land to get started. It can exist first as a digital community and build a distributed network of enclaves instead of a single, physical territory — 1,000 apartments, 100 homes, and a dozen cul-de-sacs in different locations around the world. Each outpost is a “cloud embassy” in a decentralized network called an internet country. Prospective citizens can come to the virtual or physical environment, see how they like it, and decide to leave or stay.
Technologists have been beta-testing the components of an internet country for the past thirty years. Today, there are million-person online communities and billion-dollar digital currencies. We can design buildings in VR and crowdfund them into existence. The ideas are reaching maturity and it’s becoming easier to connect the dots.
Over the past decade, digital nomads leveraged their global mobility to pursue distributed work and borderless living. Many newly remote workers will follow this path in the years ahead. Visas are legitimizing the lifestyle, and startups are emerging to support and simplify globalized hiring. More people will now choose between being a nomad and a settler, as early adopters like me already do.
Nomads already exist as an online and more occasionally offline community, never restricted to just one territory. This puts us in an ideal position to begin organizing and building on the foundations we’ve laid. Old nation-states and new internet countries will soon come to exist in an ongoing battle to attract and retain the most desirable people as citizens.
Does your modern, streamlined internet country offer a stronger citizenship package than your bloated bureaucratic nation-state? What ideal combination of taxes, healthcare, education, and guarantees would it take for you to jump ship entirely from the old system to the new?
Automate the State 💡
Failing institutions. Lack of trust in government. Weakened democracies. Nation-states have reached a crisis point in the 21st century. People have romanticized the internet as a new frontier that would change everything for decades, but these visions of the future are only just beginning to crystalize and capture people’s attention.
The tiny European nation of Estonia, home to 1.3 million people, exists sandwiched between Latvia, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Few people realize that it has one of the world’s most advanced digital governments. Civil servants began an effort to put their country on the internet in the 1990s. The system they came up with is virtual, borderless, blockchained, and secure.
As Nathan Heller explains in a 2017 essay for The New Yorker:
“In the event of a sudden invasion, Estonia’s elected leaders might scatter as necessary. Then, from cars leaving the capital, from hotel rooms, from seat 3A at thirty thousand feet, they will open their laptops, login, and — with digital signatures to execute orders and a suite of tamper-resistant services linking global citizens to their government — continue running their country, with no interruption, from the cloud.”
Forget work from anywhere. This is statecraft from anywhere. The infrastructure work has been done, though the Estonians don’t have the nomad country use case yet.
To build a nomad internet country that functions in the same way, you could take Estonia’s code and fork it, like building a website with a premade template. This would provide all the Estonian government’s functionality for reuse. Though the platform comes with none of the authority or backing of a nation-state, it comes with none of the limitations either. If starting a new country is as simple as forking code, we could see many in the coming years.
Of course, there’s no technical barrier to nation-state governments everywhere transforming themselves into flourishing digital nations. There’s just not much incentive either. Estonia is an outlier. Change is happening at an alarmingly slow pace in most countries, and there’s little appetite for dismantling and rebuilding the system from beneficiaries of the status quo. So, it continues.
Internet tools can accomplish the same functionality as a nation-state more effectively, at a much lower cost, and run according to different rules. When the systems are cheaper and simpler to run, new options become possible. Taxes might be lowered to resemble platform or transaction fees, or surpluses redistributed as a universal basic income. This creates the space for new internet countries to emerge and compete, and their best chance of success is in meeting the real needs of 21st-century citizens.
But the significance of the shift ahead is not just analog to digital, but centralized to decentralized. Nation states are the ultimate centralizing organizations. Internet countries are the opposite.
Blockchain technologies are transparent, accountable, and trustless by design, making them ideal for internet statecraft. They sidestep the issue of trust by decentralizing authority through code. There are no humans to corrupt or coerce; just rules programmed into the system, which everyone can see and critique. Tamper-resistant ledgers provide a shared source of truth and grant citizens and governments equal, instant access to public records. Using smartphone biometrics, data permissions are handled as seamlessly as approving a bank transfer.
Building a New Layer 🌍
The world as it exists right now has three layers: the local, the national, and the international.
Your immediate environment — the local — will always be important, but the nation-state is an increasingly irrelevant and unnecessary layer. Nation-states are expensive and corrupt, detached from their citizens, and incredibly inefficient. Colonies around the world sought and achieved independence from monarchies in the last century. In the next one, we could see the same shift with nation-states.
The average person’s access to international institutions is currently mediated by national gatekeepers, limiting its relevance and impact. But by democratizing The Global Layer, we can disintermediate it and cut out the middlemen.
The future emphasis will be on two layers: the hyperlocal and the global. So, the question is: What is the global layer needed to support a future where things happen globally and locally, and we want the most citizens possible to engage at both levels?
An internet country is like a software platform — the Uber or Airbnb of citizenship. It doesn’t provide on-the-ground services like hospitals, schools, and public transport. These are provided by the local layer, like city and regional governments. The global layer doesn’t replace them, but provides a seamless way to interact with them.
The nomad community is uniquely placed to understand what people need from the global layer. New global products, services, institutions, governance, and more. This is what SafetyWing — the initiators of the Plumia project — does: It builds a global layer on top of the health insurance systems that already exist.
At first, we should think about an internet country in the same way, as a means for nomads to interface with nation-state systems. We have to build trust and help our citizens solve real problems. We have to operate as a platform and think about our citizens as users. Then, we need to go a step further. We shouldn’t just build on top of the systems that already exist — we should create the global layer that doesn’t exist yet.
The First Nomad State 🧭
The possibilities of a fully-fledged internet country are only just unfolding, and we still have a lot to discover. To figure out what comes next, we have to take the first step and create a Minimum Viable State.
There’s been enthusiasm for the creation of a “nomad passport” as Plumia’s first move. I can’t get behind this idea — it doesn’t feel tangibly useful. The practical process to achieve a passport would likely involve attaching the nomad movement to a micronation (probably a tax haven) and essentially selling a product made by that country and its government.
Most nomads already come from high passport power countries, meaning they’ll enjoy visa-free access at hundreds of borders, so what use is this additional document? To be accepted for it, presumably, you would have to already hold one of the world’s better nation-state passports, meet a minimum earnings threshold, and pay an upfront fee.
Perhaps the passport would come with a set of perks, but they’d likely be superficial and limited — made within the restrictions of old thinking. Your birthplace still determines your prospects. Instead of opening up the mobility rights the nomad community enjoys to more people, we replicate the same old inequalities.
Starting with a passport feels like getting the headline without doing the real work. Sure, the press will run the story, but what you’ve created is not actually a new passport in the sense that it changes anything about how things work. It’s not part of a visionary future for people to get excited about. Instead, it’s a symbolic approval and rebranding of failing nation-state approaches. We can be more ambitious than that.
Lobbying for the old systems to accept us could easily be a full-time job, but it’s a waste of time, energy, and resources. We should be open to collaboration where our interests align but prioritize the global layer over integration. The idea of a paper passport accepts too much that’s wrong about how things work today. We need to build the future, not reform the past.
Nomads are hackers. They love finding loopholes and exploiting them. The internet allows us to route around political roadblocks in interesting ways. Nomads are primarily knowledge workers, and that generally makes us desirable visitors for most countries. So, the real bounty here isn’t to convince border officials to let nomads in by providing an answer to the question, “Where do I send this person if I want to deport them?” — which is essentially the role a passport plays in helping a person move freely.
An internet country should set new standards and build infrastructure for demographics beyond nomads, setting out to fix the current international passport system’s bugs.
Global Citizen Record 📱
To become a movement that matters, a nomad internet country needs to start adding value for its citizens early on. That means providing tangible, real-world benefits first and worrying about being accepted by incumbents and old-system clubs later and in specific ways. Their new citizenship initially supplements existing nation-state citizenship, before eventually replacing it. Integration is only a desirable goal where it offers an advantage. Our new system shouldn’t be designed within the narrow parameters of existing nation-states.
An internet country’s first project could be a Global Citizen Record (GCR) that helps remote workers navigate the emerging landscape of nomad visa options. Nomads know the pains and burden of navigating archaic visa systems all too well.
The new wave of remote work visas is a significant step, but they’re still bureaucratic, confusing and inconsistent from a global perspective. For the nomad community to grow, we have to reduce the barriers and friction that get in the way of people trying it. We need to grow and organize to represent our way of life and our community’s interests on the global stage.
By delivering an internet-era service that is immediately applicable to its earliest citizens, a nomad internet country can put its best foot forward, build a better alternative to the old ways of operating, and push its vision of a borderless world to become a movement.
This approach also aligns us with like-minded policymakers in the countries issuing nomad visas. By working with governments as a global layer above what they do, we can learn from what exists and collaborate to demonstrate what’s possible. We can facilitate governments to accept the Global Citizen Record — interfacing for mutual benefit without seeking their approval or input beyond what’s absolutely necessary.
The Estonian example shows that something like this is already technically achievable through a chip-ID card and encryption keys. Estonia’s citizen records are easily accessible, securely stored, and available for use across jurisdictions. Each citizen can view, manage, and grant access to their own data from their smartphone — whether it’s at immigration or the doctor’s office. When somebody accesses a person’s data, they receive a ping, and there are severe consequences for anyone found to be accessing private information without a valid reason.
An internet country that can’t recognize its own citizens won’t survive for long, so it needs a way to track and verify them. Why not turn identity verification into a public system and service?
In time, the GCR could contain:
- Identity verification: Rather than rely on insecure paper documents like birth certificates and passports, blockchain token systems like Proof of Humanity offer an alternative approach to verifying a person’s identity that will eventually become prevalent.
- Birth certificates and passports: In the meantime, verified digital copies of vital documents like birth certificates and passports are necessary to apply for visas, residency, jobs, and permission to start a company. A digital storage system is a viable transition step.
- Proof of education, income, and residency: Most immigration systems currently rely on individuals supplying this evidence — often in inconsistent formats. If your state fails and you don’t have proof of your education, you’ll be treated as if it doesn’t exist.
- Criminal record checks: Again, applying for visas and residency status often requires a person to prove they don’t have a criminal record, and supply biometric data to the local authorities.
- Medical and vaccination records: When seeking treatment from host countries’ healthcare systems, it makes sense for the individual citizen to hold their medical data and share what’s needed at the point of service.
For new and experienced nomads alike, the GCR could be a transformative tool when applying for visas, starting an overseas job, or launching a new business. But it also provides value beyond that.
If your government falls — as in Myanmar, Ethiopia, Syria, countless others — you as an individual still have some security and peace of mind beyond the nation-state you were paired with at birth. You can prove who you are and where you come from using a secondary record that is not dependent on a single nation-state’s record-keeping.
The exciting part of building a nomad internet country is the infrastructure we can create and run on a new set of rules. It should be a digital platform serving citizens everywhere.
National governments won’t like this decentralized global layer. The concept of opting into an internet country and out of a nation-state country is a danger to their entire business model. Countries will try to retain their power and control through regulation, but the pace of their decision-making and action will be slow. Citizenship is already fluid, for sale to anyone who brings enough money to a country. Any changes to this complex, opaque system will have an impact on the capital and investors arriving in a nation’s borders, ensuring years of disagreement and uncertainty over how best to respond.
In this new era, more people will exit citizenship packages that offer a lousy deal and choose a more competitive option, which is more likely to come from an internet country than an existing nation-state. We need a way to facilitate that seamlessly; for global mobility to become as simple as traveling from one place to another. And that free movement shouldn’t be restricted only to the lucky few who come from high passport power countries.
Mobility Rights 🛂
The displacement of people and the resulting refugee crises unfolding are problems that nation-states either willfully ignore or actively make worse. With the impact of climate change, these problems will only grow more prominent in the coming decade. Here, there is a clear opportunity for an internet country. We can design a global infrastructure that serves digital nomads and serves people who find themselves in the position of being stateless.
My lens comes from personal experience: I’m the child of a refugee. I was raised to recognize my passport privilege and how different life could have been if I was born, like my father, in Iran instead of the UK. I grew up to become an early adopter digital nomad and used my British passport to travel. I understand both ends of the mobility spectrum, and I see connections between them.
Remote, borderless work flattens access to opportunities. But that potential can’t be realized unless we champion the mobility rights of all people. An individual in the 21st century should be able to move from place to place legitimately, wherever they come from. We have the technology to build a nomad internet country, but how we do it and the culture we make matter — perhaps more than the stack itself.
If we design a nomad internet country with intention, we can do two things:
- Avoid the nomad movement producing colonialism 2.0, wherein a wealthy elite who were lucky enough to be born in the right place move freely while many others are stuck in one location.
- Create new pathways for refugees, displaced and stateless people to exit their country of origin and integrate a layer above instead, facilitating them to start online businesses and obtain nomad visas.
The mission must be to iterate instead of replicate, which means serving a cause greater than ourselves and striving to build better infrastructure than what exists today. By doing this, an internet country can earn the headlines people write about it. Without substance, it’s a viral moment that will fizzle. Instead, it should be the foundations of something that moves the needle.
To be clear, a GCR to help nomads with remote work visas isn’t the end game here. It’s the beginning of something, and it’s better than a passport because it can be an open-source project that establishes infrastructure for all people. That’s the future we have the chance to build, but we risk losing it if we only think about the short term.
Internet countries are an idea whose time has come. If nomads launch one of the first, our chances of success are high. For years, we’ve been accidentally building all the community, infrastructure, and knowledge this statecraft project needs. A new country has to stand for something. A nomad internet country should stand for a more human future, where equality of opportunity and mobility exists for everyone.
This post was written in response to Balaji S. Srinivasan’s How to Start a New Country on 1729.com.