Perhaps that is because this cohort of technotopians has learned from the mistakes of their peers, or because they’ve hired more thoughtful urbanists — or, perhaps cynically, they’re just trying to appeal to rural residents who will have to vote on the new city plan. Whatever the reason, I hope this time will be different. But with so many tech investors at the helm who are eager to pilot new technologies like flying cars, I’m not optimistic.
I get it. It’s challenging to transform our existing cities and to pilot new tech solutions on our streets. Just look at the rocky rollout of e-scooters around the world. Wouldn’t it be easier to test new technologies, business models and government structures in cities free of pesky people? That’s certainly the aim of many technotopian plans, which call for new cities to be built, new rules to be written and new residents to opt in to being guinea pigs. Mr. Lonsdale, of Palantir, explains: “The idea is simple: found new cities, free from old bureaucratic and legal structures, and explore bold new visions of how government should work. Market them to people who choose to join and see what the world learns.”
But these new cities are never really built from scratch. They usually encroach on someone else’s land or run contrary to local plans. The technotopians rarely acknowledge that, which often leads to their downfall, as with Alphabet in Toronto and the Seasteaders in French Polynesia. The Solano project appears to be on a similar trajectory. They’ve snapped up land under a veil of secrecy, which has undermined needed political support. “If these investors plan to convince Solano residents and their elected representatives that building a new city on productive agricultural land is a wise scheme, they are off to a terrible start at earning the community’s trust,” John Garamendi, a Democrat who represents part of Solano County, testified at a recent State Senate committee hearing.
It’s a shame the technotopians keep seeking out new territories. Our existing cities have plenty of problems to solve. And there are plenty of technologies that could help solve them. Their perpetual focus on starting from scratch is just a megalomaniac distraction.
No need to worry, you may think: Many of these places will never get built. But there’s an opportunity cost to these utopian dreams. What if all the billions in venture capital money and media attention were refocused on solving real-world challenges in cities today? Could we better fix public transportation’s pending fiscal cliff or the affordable housing crisis? I’m afraid we’ll never know. The lure of starting from scratch is just too great.
Molly Turner is a lecturer at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-host of the podcast “Technopolis.”
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