Tech Titans Want to Build a New City—Can’t They Fix What We’ve Already Got?

From a New York Times guest essay by Molly Turner headlined “Tech Titans Want to Build a New City. Can’t They Fix What We’ve Already Got?”:

Tech leaders are fed up with cities and their politics. So they want to start over. And that doesn’t bode well for cities old or new.

We recently learned that the mysterious company gobbling up land in Solano County, Calif., is funded by venture capitalists including Marc Andreessen, Reid Hoffman and Steve Jobs’s widow, Laurene Powell Jobs. Their goal: build a new city from scratch.

In doing so, they are getting in a long line of technotopians that includes the Google co-founder Larry Page and his effort to build cities “from the internet up,” the Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale and his plans for “charter cities” and the PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and his desire for “Seasteader” cities floating on water. The Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wants to see cities floating in space, and Elon Musk has proposed cities in Texas and on Mars. There’s even a venture capital firm funding the creation of new cities.

As a professor of urban tech who has worked in the industry for years, I’ve been recruited to lead some of these technotopian ventures. What I learned from these meetings keeps me focused on my day job. The tech leaders may have the money to build new cities, and they certainly have the hubris. What they lack is the disposition.

Cities and their problems have long bedeviled people in power. The technotopians are just the latest in a grand tradition of American business magnates aspiring to build their dreams — from Pullman, Ill., to Epcot Center in Disney World. They tend to approach building cities the same way they’ve approached building tech start-ups. And that is unfortunate.

To state the obvious: Cities are not start-ups. They can’t keep up with the tech industry’s rate of innovation. That frustrates many technotopians, like the Thumbtack co-founder Jonathan Swanson, who once complained that “humans currently live in cities that are the equivalent of flip phones” — the worst possible insult in Silicon Valley at the time.

Cities aren’t like phones. They’re not like computers either, a distinction that the University of Pennsylvania professor Shannon Mattern wrote an entire book to explain. Urban problems are too complex and politically fraught to be programmed into an app. Constructing a building takes much longer than constructing a website. And undoing the racist legacy of urban policies is more complicated than pushing through a software update.

Approaching complex urban problems as if they were engineering problems has led to some of the biggest mistakes in our urban history. During the urban renewal era of the mid-20th century, urban planners like Le Corbusier were so enthusiastic about the so-called “machine age” that they approached buildings and cities as if they were “machines for living.” The results were mostly car-centric, soulless and segregated by use (and often by race), from Brasília to San Francisco’s Fillmore neighborhood. City leaders have since spent billions working to deconstruct and reintegrate what those “machine age” planners built.

While today’s technologies have made it easier to optimize urban life, they haven’t helped us reach a collective agreement about what aspects of urban life deserve optimization. An overemphasis on urban technology can be a distraction from urban outcomes. For example, the frantic race to deploy autonomous vehicles on our streets appears to be more focused on perfecting the vehicles than on addressing cities’ real mobility challenges. That’s because technotopian proposals tend to focus on solving technology problems more than people problems. You can see this in how they pitch themselves. New technologies often outnumber people in their renderings, if people are pictured at all.

Refreshingly, the latest proposal from the technotopians in Solano County hasn’t focused on the tech — yet. Their renderings are surprisingly nostalgic for a storybook Mediterranean urbanism. But as the San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic put it, the renderings are impossible to critique, because, “what was unfurled is so innocuous as to be an insult. The images are as placid as a video aimed at infants.”

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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